fiction

For Holocaust Memorial Day

“To forget the dead would be akin to killing them a second time.” Elie Wiesel

Teaching children about traumatic events in our collective history can be difficult, and when picking a book on the subject it’s more important than ever to judge content more than appearance. There is fierce debate on how old children should be before they are taught about the Holocaust or other genocides. Teaching the historical context of the Nazis, of death and what’s morally right and wrong can all be taught much earlier, but it’s hard to teach the meaning and mechanics of mass murder before secondary school. Even some adults have a hard time grasping the enormity of it. The national curriculum dictates that the Holocaust should be taught in key stage 3 – Year 7, 8 or 9, which is the first three years of secondary school (ages 11-14).

“Fiction cannot recite the numbing numbers, but it can be that witness, that memory” – Jane Yolen

Firstly, I’ve chosen three works of fiction. They are all picture books, but that doesn’t mean they’re for small children – in fact they are best for age 10+ yrs. I’ve chosen them for their exploration of the Holocaust from different viewpoints, and as starting points for serious discussion about the Holocaust. None of them should be read in isolation, but rather explored after an initial insight into what did happen to the Jewish people during the Second World War.

Benno and the Night of Broken Glass

Benno and the Night of Broken Glass by Meg Wiviott, illustrated by Josee Bisaillon
This is a cat’s eye view of Kristallnacht. Benno is the neighbourhood cat, who visits Sophie on Shabbat, and is fed schnitzel by the Schmidts after church, and gets titbits from the kosher butcher. All is seemingly well. Then gradually Benno realises that there are fewer scraps, and the neighbourhood people are growing ever more impatient, and that there are now new black boots stomping along the pavement. Then Kristallnacht happens, Benno’s paws are sore from the broken glass on the pavement, and Benno doesn’t see Sophie and her family any more, nor Professor Goldfarb. It’s a simplistic animal tale of a neighbourhood changing, but the masked horror of the Holocaust pervades the story. The implied disappearance of the Jewish people of the neighbourhood leaves it up to the reader to imagine what may have prevailed that night. The Afterword explains Kristallnacht in a little more detail, telling what that night was about and what did happen to the Jews in Germany. However, the last paragraph is a little emotive, which is a shame for a page that should remain factual. However, it is a clever introduction to the build-up of the Holocaust in Germany.

Star of Fear

Star of Fear, Star of Hope by Jo Hoestlandt, illustrated by Johanna Kang
Another simplistic story, which belies the terror underneath, is Star of Fear, which tells the narrative from an old lady’s point of view – looking back on those things that she couldn’t comprehend as a little girl. Helen remembers growing up in France after the German invasion of 1942. She remembers her childhood friend Lydia, and the yellow star Lydia was forced to wear on her clothes. It’s a story about friendship, and how little girls can say things to their friends that they don’t mean – and ultimately live to regret. Helen regrets more than most, as in a spontaneous angry outburst she tells Lydia that they are no longer friends, little knowing it was the last time she would ever see her…it is supposed that Lydia was taken away by the Nazis the next day. The simplicity of the text and pictures adds to the poignancy.

whispering town

The Whispering Town by Jennifer Elvgren, illustrated by Fabio Santomauro
Published last year, The Whispering Town tells the story of the Danish Jews through the eyes of a little girl. The Danish story itself is quite remarkable. As a nation Denmark actively resisted the Nazis’ plan to round up the Jewish people, and managed to smuggle a huge percentage of their Jewish population to safety in Sweden. They relied upon the goodness of their people, and The Whispering Town shows how the shopkeepers and neighbours all helped the hidden Jews in one cellar in Gilleleje to escape by boat from the harbour. The illustrations depict the Nazis as menacing, gun-wielding soldiers and the Danish people with simpatico faces. Cleverly, the Jews hiding in the cellar are simply white pen lines on black – a shadow almost. The colours throughout are muted – pale greens, much black and grey – other than the stark red of the Nazi symbol on the soldiers’ shirtsleeves. This may be a story of hope and salvation, but the events happened in a terrible time. My feeling is that it’s important to teach children that there is hope despite the horror of six million Jews and many other people losing their lives during the Holocaust. It is vital that children understand there are pockets of goodness and humanity. If a whole nation can rise up against the Nazis, then it is possible for goodness to overcome. This link describes the Danish efforts well.

usborne holocaust

After a wealth of discussion of story, it is worth consulting some reference too. One such title that sets things out clearly and easily for children is Usborne: The Holocaust. In a matter-of-fact tone, but with excellently precise vocabulary, Susanna Davidson sets out the narrative of the Holocaust, encompassing the roots of anti-Semitism, the Nazi definition of whom they defined as being Jewish, the treatment of other minority groups, the advancement of Germany through Europe, the increasingly harsh treatment of Jews and minorities, before going on to address ghettos, and the final solution. It also covers small acts of defiance in the face of certain death, both from Jews and non-Jews, which is really important. It’s simple to understand, crams a mass of information into short digestible chunks, and does its very best to explain a seemingly inexplicable event. Despite its conciseness, the book does contain graphic information on the killing of Jews, including shooting at mass graves and the death camps. It also quotes people from the time, and includes graphic images, including the painting ‘Gassing’ by Auschwitz survivor David Olere. There are many photographs too, including those of a survivor at the liberation of Belsen. Be warned, this is not a book for young children, but would do well to accompany those studying the Holocaust at Key Stage 3. The afterword throws up some questions that children may ask afterwards, and doesn’t try to answer them, but instead finishes on the note that the Holocaust is not something that should ever be forgotten.

DK Holocaust

I’ve not included a comprehensive review of DK Holocaust, a title that I worked on myself, as sadly, it appears to be unavailable at most good bookstores. However, if you can get a copy it’s an all-encompassing examination of the Holocaust for older children, which I worked on with the superb writer Angela Gluck Wood. I can self-promote shamelessly as I receive no royalties.

Holocaust Memorial Day is on January 27th.

 Usborne Holocaust was very kindly sent to me by Usborne Publishing

The Wickford Doom by Chris Priestley

The Wickford Doom
Not usually one for ghost stories, this little tale of the supernatural set during the Second World War and aimed at eight year olds gave me a few shivers! It’s a beautifully compact story of Harry and his mother, who discover that they have inherited an old eerie mansion, Wickford Hall. However, it becomes apparent that this is a cruel joke, and as the story unfolds Harry is led further and further into the creepy past and supernatural evils of long ago. Chris Priestley is a master of suspense and tight plotting, and this is his first title for the dyslexia-friendly publisher Barrington Stokes. At nearly 140 pages, it’s slightly longer than some titles for this age group in their range, but rattles along at a grand pace – the anticipation building, and the emotions wonderfully crafted. Chris Priestley manages to convey Harry’s thoughts and feelings perceptively, yet with sparse words. The language is both simple and yet highly evocative:
“The cliffs were high, and they were cracking and crumbling like a huge, half-eaten loaf of bread that was shedding crumbs.”
Published on dyslexia-friendly paper, and appealing to both avid and reluctant readers, with easy chapters and good spacing, this is an excellent starting point for leaping into longer novels. Highly recommended and spooky – the banging door is still haunting me!

The Wickford Doom was kindly sent to me for review by Barrington Stoke publishers. Click here to purchase

Silly Stories for Six and Over

Did you know that 70 per cent of children aged 6-17 years say they want more books that make them laugh? Here are some books I think the youngest in this age bracket might like:

Stinkbomb and Ketchup Face
Stinkbomb and Ketchup Face and the Badness of Badgers by John Dougherty, illustrated by David Tazzyman
This is a gigglefest from start to finish. A self-reflective story that follows Stinkbomb and Ketchup-face as they take part in a silly adventure on the small island of Great Kerfuffle, engaged in a quest decreed by the king to rid the kingdom of the ‘bad’ badgers.  John Dougherty applies wit and endless humour as he employs clever storytelling devices to lead you on a trip through funny chapter headings, allusions to characters realising they are only playing a part in a story, and playfulness on the words themselves. It’s a perfect short read for older reluctant readers, or a good contained story for newly independent readers. The humour is not too juvenile – more witty – which is very refreshing in children’s ‘funny’ stories, and you will have to rein yourself in from wanting to read bits aloud! The story is also suitably matched to David Tazzyman’s illustrations (those familiar with the Mr Gum stories will recognise the illustrator’s style). A brilliant read – with two more in the series already published, and another to come in July 2015.

Pigsticks and Harold

Pigsticks and Harold and the Incredible Journey by Alex Milway
Alex Milway brings to the table a cross-over link between picturebooks and chapter books for first readers with this wonderful full-colour chapter book about a self-important pig and a reluctant hamster and their ill-judged adventures. Pigsticks decides to make his mark and explore to The Ends of the Earth, but realises he’ll need an assistant to carry his gear and cook. Hamster inadvertently gets the job, and they set off on their adventures. The language bears out the characteristics of the pig and hamster brilliantly, and there are numerous laughs both from text and picture. There’s also a lot of cake. Beautifully produced, and wonderfully manageable, this is also a treat to be read aloud and savoured as there are plenty of little in-jokes for adults too. It feeds into the current trend in children’s publishing for more illustrations alongside text, never a bad thing with so many talented illustrators such as Alex Milway in the mix. If there weren’t already a hugely famous pig out there, I would say this lends itself beautifully to a television cartoon too. A second in the series was published in November 2014, Pigsticks and Harold and the Tuptown Thief.

Superhero school

Superhero School: The Revenge of the Green Meanie by Alan McDonald, illustrated by Nigel Baines
From the author of Dirty Bertie comes a new series about a superhero school. Stan Button is an ordinary child who receives a summons to a special school for an interview. Before long he’s enrolled and participating in superhero lessons with his superhero peers. Unfortunately for them, the Green Meanie is on the loose, and battle commences. Almost everyone in the story is inept – from the headmistress to the dinner lady, the students to the baddie, which makes the whole enterprise slapstick and in the end it’s more common sense and teamwork that overpowers the baddie than superskills. This is a good first reader, with the typical bottom jokes that children of this age find so humorous. I must warn though – this book strongly suggests that the tooth fairy doesn’t exist (which some children this age may find upsetting and surprising!) More are promised in this series later this year.

Fish Fingers

The Fabulous Four Fish Fingers by Jason Beresford, illustrated by Vicky Barker
For slightly more advanced readers, this first in a wacky series about four children who are granted their wish to be superheroes is a riotous read from start to finish, packed with groanworthy jokes and laughable antics. Our fabulous four fish fingers, Chimp, Nightingale, KangaRuby and Slug Boy, otherwise known as Gary, Bel, Ruby and Morris, take on evil duo Jumper Jack Flash and the Panteater to stop them stealing all the sweets in the village of Tumchester. What sets this funny story apart from others in the market is twofold: firstly Jason’s inventiveness, which seems to know no bounds, and secondly, the heart behind the book. Each character is imbued with the authors’ immense sense of fun and jauntiness, but there is also incredible feeling, from Ruby with her fear of rabbits, to Morris, aka Slug Boy, who always seems to get the short end of the straw, but inevitably manages to rise above. The underlying theme of the book is teamwork, as the four children discover that you can’t actually become a superhero overnight but need to practise and work as a team to overcome the enemy. Another in the series was published late last year, Frozen Fish Fingers.
13 storey treehouseinside treehouse2 inside treehouse

The 13-Storey Treehouse, by Andy Griffiths and Terry Denton, publishing UK 29th January
First published in Australia, Andy Griffiths’ treehouse books are now making their way to the UK. This is one of the most fun books I have read and I know several Year 3 students in my library who will adore this book and fall about laughing. Actually reading it was not unlike listening to banter between my husband and my son, as the book relates the dialogue between Andy and Terry as they think up what to write about for their latest book. The book is also stuffed full with cartoons, which are full of life, zesty and zany. Andy and Terry live in a 13 storey treehouse complete with lemonade fountain, man-eating shark pool, theatre and library and giant catapult (all simply illustrated). There are pages of detailed cartoons, and pages of simple ones, interspersed with lively laugh-out-loud text. The children who read this were enthralled by the idea that if they didn’t write the book, Andy and Terry would have to revert to working in the monkey house. They were also taken by the fact that the main characters were also the names of the authors. A fabulous laugh – it’s a joy to know there are more titles yet to come.

 

The Fabulous Four Fish Fingers was very kindly sent to me by Bounce marking on behalf of Catnip Publishing.

Reading Aloud: the key to nurturing passionate readers

Do you read aloud to your children? The recent Scholastic Kids and Family Reading Report, Jan 2015, suggests that reading aloud to your children all the way through primary school, well beyond when they become an independent reader, has a link to their general love of reading. For 41% of children who are ‘frequent readers’, the critical factor is that their parents kept reading aloud to them after the age of six.

What do I mean by frequent readers? I mean those who read for fun five to seven days a week, infrequent readers only read for fun less than one day a week. Frequent reading makes a real difference. “Enjoyment of reading has a greater impact on a child’s educational achievement than their parents’ socio-economic status” OECD Reading For Change, 2002, 2009. “Children who read for pleasure make more progress in maths, vocabulary and spelling between the ages of 10-16 than those who rarely read.” Institute of Education, 2013.

In fact parental involvement in reading is one of the biggest factors in determining if your child will be a lifelong reader. If you read aloud to them frequently before they started school, they are 60 per cent more likely to be frequent readers, and this will continue if you have books at home, make frequent trips to the library, discuss books they are reading, and are seen to be reading yourself.

What may surprise you is that generally we’re not reading aloud to them. The Scholastic report tells us that 52 per cent of children aged 0-2 yrs are read aloud to 5-7 days a week, and 55 per cent aged 3-5 yrs, but only 34 per cent aged 6-8 yrs and 17 per cent aged 9-11 yrs. And yet across all age groups, 83 per cent of kids say they loved or “liked a lot” those times when parents read to them aloud at home.

But they love reading independently

Reading independently is terrific, but the data implies that reading aloud encourages reading independently. It is also a simple way to push your child ahead. Parents invest in tutors, music lessons, day trips – spending time reading to them likely has an equal or bigger impact. Not only will they get something out of it, but so will you. It’s a phenomenal bonding time – children aged 6-11 yrs pointed to this being a huge factor in why they enjoyed being read to. In an age of disconnect, with fewer shared family meals, and more time spent alone on electronic devices, reading to your child is a great way of communicating. Of course, it takes time to read regularly with your children but the rewards are worth it, so it’s all about prioritising.

For those children who are excellent independent readers already, it’s a perfect opportunity to introduce texts that they might not reach for themselves – fiction for avid independent non-fiction readers, or more complex texts where you can explain the nuances of the plot and define the stretching vocabulary, especially for those stuck on ‘series’ books. You can discover the new books published for children that you couldn’t read when you were a child, or rediscover the classics you did read as a child.

Here are a few great texts to read aloud to the different age groups.

Nora Nora inside Nora inside cake

Nora, the girl who ate and ate and ate by Andrew Weale, illustrated by Ben Cort, is a treat to read-aloud. A book that rhymes screams to be read aloud, and children adore guessing following words once they pick up on the rhythm and rhyme. There are some special words that ‘Boom’ out the page, and of course, it makes children laugh – a key strategy in encouraging children to love books. I can never make it through to the end without children giving me the two punchlines in the book, one…
“They all went down in one huge SLURP!
Then Nora did a great big…”
If my three year old guessed what came next – I’m sure you can…I won’t give away the final punchline, but suffice to say, it’s a winner too. The energy just bounces off the pages – resonated by the author and illustrator, whom I had the pleasure to meet at the Southbank Children’s Book Festival a couple of years ago.

wheres my teddymister magnolia

Two other beautifully funny and clever rhyming books for very young children are the much loved Where’s My Teddy by Jez Alborough – which manages to conjure the dark and frightening while still being loved by small children everywhere – and Mr Magnolia by Quentin Blake, serving up the most delicious rhymes and images. We still can’t talk about boots without invoking Mr Magnolia.

momo and snap

There are other stories that were written to be vocalised. Momo and Snap are NOT friends by Airlie Anderson has no words. Simple sounds and grunts illustrate the story of a crocodile and a monkey making friends.

the book with no pictures

Of course the most recent addition to the canon of ‘must be read loud books’ is The Book With No Pictures by B. J. Novak. It does exactly what it says on the cover – there are no pictures in this book, and the joy only comes by reading aloud. The fun that can be had by doing different voices and playing with words and language in the simplest form is exemplified by the author’s video of him reading his book to a class of kids. Here’s the video.

Enormous CrocodileEnormous Crocodile inside

My favourite Roald Dahl book to read aloud for the 5+ yrs audience is The Enormous Crocodile. (I would encourage you to buy or borrow the colour illustrated version). I think even the shyest reader can manage to inject some menace into the Enormous Crocodile’s dialogue, and there’s a special delight to be had from reading the tremendous vocabulary out loud:
“’Oh you horrid hoggish croc!” cried Muggle-Wump. “You slimy creature! I hope the buttons and buckles all stick in your throat and choke you to death!”’

Once children start reading independently most will visit Enid Blyton. I wouldn’t personally read aloud all her books (!), but it’s nice to read the first in a series, then you can explain words such as ‘sanitorium’, which today’s children may not understand.

Inkheart

The great stories and tremendous subtleties in some older children’s literature can be enjoyed equally by parents and children (eg. Harry Potter, Narnia stories). Inkheart by Cornelia Funke manages to convey beautifully the ‘wise adult’ narrator, and the ability of the author to empathise with childhood feelings within one phrase:
“Sometimes, when you’re so sad you don’t know what to do, it helps to be angry.”

Revisiting the classics with your child at this age is truly rewarding. Many of the titles are fairly inaccessible to a young independent reader due to the old fashioned vocabulary and references, but together they can be digested more easily, examples include Black Beauty, Heidi, The Railway Children. You can read my blog on classics here. Be wary though, some read alouds can result in adults’ tears; I found it very hard to stumble to the end of Charlotte’s Web as I was crying too much!

Goodnight Mr Tom

A more difficult book is Goodnight Mister Tom by Michelle Magorian. I wholly recommend this as a read aloud text. Whilst many children from age ten should be able to cope well with this book, the issues thrown up deserve some time and discussion. Issues of grief, parental responsibility, displacement and suchlike, need exploring, and it can be hard for children to give voice to the emotions raised by the book. Reading aloud enables the parent to see the child’s reaction at each stage and probe for feelings as you go along. Of course, not every book can be read aloud, but there are arguments for fluent readers to be read to with more difficult texts as they start reading on their own, so that they can see books can be discussed and issues that come up can be raised with their parents. Even some young adult titles deserve reading aloud so that the concepts within can be fully raked over. Examples for me would include Nothing by Janne Teller, Bloodtide by Melvin Burgess, and The Bunker Diary by Kevin Brooks.

Nothing

 

For reference:

Scholastic report
New York Times Article

Children’s Classics

I’m not going to explore what makes a classic children’s book – this is best saved for a university essay, but there is a wealth of children’s literature which is universally recognised as being the classical canon. Whether it’s the Victorian/Edwardian canon of The Railway Children, The Secret Garden or Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland or the 1950’s canon of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, and Charlotte’s Web, these books have something in common. They endure through the ages, they are well written with quality narrative and most of them can be read on two levels – the basic story childhood level, such as children stepping through a wardrobe into a fantastical land, or into a secret garden, but if you care to look you will find them imbued with deeper meaning, such as the allegory of Christ as Aslan in Narnia, or the motif of the Garden of Eden before the fall in the grounds of Misselthwaite Manor in The Secret Garden.

I was recently inspired to write on classic children’s books by two events. One, the currently trending #2015classicschallenge on http://theprettybooks.wordpress.com/2014/12/27/2015-classics-challenge/ , which if you are inclined to social media you should look at, but mainly by my trip to the theatre at Kings Cross to see E Nesbit’s The Railway Children.

The Railway Children

Although many adults may balk at the ‘prison’ spying storyline for little ones, in essence the story starts with a miscarriage of justice. Even the five year old who accompanied me to the theatre fully understood that premise – many a time they have been ill accused of a misdemeanour at home when in fact someone else was to blame. The bulk of the story revolves around neat little incidents as the children get used to their new home in Yorkshire alongside the railway line, befriending the locals and helping out, particularly Mr Perks, the stationmaster, and the children’s endless optimism fires each adventure. E Nesbit’s books are always beautifully full of hope. The older children to whom I read the story both commented on how neatly and satisfyingly all the storylines come together in the end. And they couldn’t get over the mother’s utterance:
“Jam OR butter, dear – not jam AND butter. We can’t afford that sort of reckless luxury nowadays!”

Peter Pan and WendyThe Adventures of Tom SawyerTom Sawyer illus

In fact reading classics aloud to children aged between six and 10 (or any age) is in itself enormously satisfying. They often see it very differently from how you remember the story. One thing I’ve always tried to do is to use illustrated classics. Although the e-reader has its place (as I’ve said before) I haven’t heard of any parent (yet) using this to read aloud to their child at bedtime. So many of the illustrated classics allow the children an insight into a tale that is usually set a long time ago and can be quite a leap in the imagination. A small drawing can do wonders and start the ball rolling in their own imaginations. Pick carefully though as the illustrations can stick in the mind for many years. One set I’ve used many times is those illustrated by the great Robert Ingpen. His imaginings of Peter Pan and Wendy by J. M. Barrie are quite startling, and a long way from Disney. Be warned, the story too is a long way from Disney. In fact, our perceptions of the classics may be somewhat different from the reality as we read them as children ourselves and memory can be shapeshifting. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain has ceased to be taught in schools in the US as it contains the ‘n’ word more than 200 times, although of course this was widely accepted when published in 1884, and I don’t remember it being a huge issue when I was a child (no age reveal here though!) The language in Peter Pan is quite difficult and dated, and the undercurrent of sexuality and frustrated loneliness in the boy who never grows up is never far from the surface. Of all the classics I’ve reread with children, this was the only one where I wished I’d stuck to an abridged version.

The Secret GardenThe Secret Garden illus

Other beautiful illustrations are those of Angela Barrett for The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett, although I have shown the cover version illustrated by Charles Robinson, another fine illustrator, as it is easier to purchase. The language here is not difficult, only reading aloud those Yorkshire accents for we Londoners, and is quite captivating from the start:
“When Mary Lennox was sent to Misselthwaite Manor to live with her uncle, everybody said she was the most disagreeable-looking child ever seen.”
The characters in The Secret Garden are loveable and sympathetic despite the fact that sometimes (like us all) they can be quite selfish and stubborn. This is a beautiful story of how Mary, and her cousin Colin, despite their disagreeable misfortunes, come in time to recognise the beauty around them and to embrace it, eventually bringing warmth and friendship to the cold harsh Yorkshire household in which they live. It has magic and darkness and timeless quality. In my 1983 Octopus Books edition, there are full page colour illustrations every so often which highlight a particular phrase from the book:
“She put the key in and turned it” illustrates the door to the garden but doesn’t quite let you see inside – that is left magically for your own imagination.

Alices Adventures in WonderlandAlice in Wonderland queen

Of course a book will always conjure slightly different impressions depending on the age at which you read it – and perhaps the person reading it to you, but one book that never fails to delight – even amongst five year olds who don’t really get it – is Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. This I read in any version that sticks to the original illustrations by Sir John Tenniel. No one else can illustrate the Queen in quite the same way:
“The Queen turned crimson with fury, and, after glaring at her for a moment like a wild beast, began screaming ‘Off with her head! Off-“
It’s a fantastical, subversive adventure where nothing really makes sense, but it should make you laugh. Also written as a satirical viewpoint on Victorian life, people hurtling to keep up with the industrialisation and inventions of the time, and the autocratic behaviour of the queen, there is no end to the depth of the Alice books. However, reading it to children introduces them to fantasy and ‘wonder’ and hopefully will invest them with a sense of the possibilities of literature.

As I said before it’s not just literature from more than 100 years ago. Puffin Modern Classics have cited as classics both the The Sheep-Pig by Dick King Smith, and The Demon Headmaster by Gillian Cross, as well as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl.

But a literary culture is always fluid. Will Harry Potter last as The Railway Children has, and be the ultimate children’s classic of our time? The past couple of years has seen a growing chorus of new children’s literature that demands to be read– including Five Children on the Western Front by Kate Saunders, see my review here – and The Last Wild by Piers Torday (soon to be reviewed). This year too is filled with promise. The question is which titles will endure?

And So This Is Christmas…

The Story of Holly and Ivy

On my bookshelf are a fair few books from my childhood that are now sadly out of print. One, for which I lament its inaccessibility more than others, is a traditional Christmas tale, The Story of Holly and Ivy by Rumer Godden. In fact, it’s not my favourite book of Godden’s – that title belongs to the brilliant The Diddakoi (in my view one of the best books on outsiders and bullying), but The Story of Holly and Ivy stands out as a simple, old-fashioned story that deserves to be read every Christmas Eve.
It is a story about wishes. After all, every child has their wishes at Christmas – wishes that Father Christmas visits them and delivers the correct present – wishes that their family can spend some quality time together – wishes for a healthy and happy new year following the holiday season.
Holly is a doll in the story, who wishes to be bought and owned and loved. Ivy is an orphan child, who likewise wishes to be looked after and loved, and Mrs Jones is a woman with no child who wishes for her own. The three strands tie together to create a little Christmas tale with a happy ending. It may sound sentimental, and does massively affect the heart strings, but the narration is so pure that you forgive any play on the emotions.

The Story of Holly and Ivy1
Reassuringly confident, Rumer Godden takes the role of the omniscient author, addressing ‘you’ the reader and speaking of ‘I’, the storyteller, as she explains what you and/or I would feel, and what she knows that Ivy does not know. Her gentle tones sweep the reader through the story. Some of the most stunning lines of the story have a presence today that the author could not have anticipated when she wrote it in 1959:
“They did not know, and Abracadabra [the owl] did not know that it is when shopping is over that Christmas begins.”
And my Christmas wish is for the publisher to realise the strength of this story and to commission a new and upcoming modern illustrator, and repackage the book for the next generation. Although it’s available on an e-reader (and I truly believe e-readers have their place for many texts), this book deserves to be given as a gift, shared with siblings, and pored over in book form.

The Story of Holly and Ivy3

The cover version Young Puffin shown at the top is my old copy from the 1970s, illustrated by Sheila Bewley, but out of print. This edition, Viking, 2006 was illustrated by Barbara Cooney and is available in some shops, although there seem to be more copies available in the US than here in the UK. An ebook edition is available. 

Penguin or Owl?

So first there was snow – and then there were penguins. I’m not sure when penguins became synonymous with Christmas, but this year they certainly have – from the John Lewis advert to the Penguins of Madagascar, Penguins have arrived in London in time for Christmas.

owl or penguin
When I was little I had a small soft toy called Owly. It was loved and cherished (see its somewhat battered state now), but it was only recently that someone pointed out that maybe it’s a penguin. So I thought – that’s a great premise for a book – the penguin with the mistaken identity. In the meantime, here are some books that have already been written:

Penguin Polly DunbarPouting Boy
Penguin by Polly Dunbar
My overall abiding love for this book is one illustration that depicts a facial expression, in which a close member of my family is THE expert. Penguin tells the story of a boy called Ben who receives a penguin as a present, but the penguin will not communicate with him, no matter what Ben does. Finally Ben is eaten by a lion, the penguin saves him, and the penguin suddenly has a great deal to say. The book is packed with witty illustrations, a zany storyline and a winning outcome. An old favourite. Penguins are often used as a way to explore and develop friendships in picture books – I wonder if that’s because they are often depicted huddling together? Two perfect examples of penguin friends are Fluff and Billy Do Everything Together by Nicola Killen and Lost and Found by Oliver Jeffers.

Fluff and BillyLost and Found
Fluff and Billy tells the tale of when play between friends gets rough leading to hurt and falling out – before there is forgiveness and friendship again. It works well to read aloud to a small child because the book is littered with repetition. Lost and Found by Oliver Jeffers is fast becoming a children’s classic. The book tells the story of a boy who opens the door one day to see a penguin standing on his doorstep. He spends much of the book grappling with what to do with the penguin – until realising at the end that the penguin just wants a friend. Jeffers’ illustrations are beguilingly simple – less is more in fact. Jeffers said that the illustrations are deliberately simple so that children, wherever they are, can fill in the gaps with their own individual landscapes. Characters too – the penguin is a few simple lines – it almost seems as if the characters of the boy and the penguin are more expressive the less detail they have. Jeffers’ text also shines with a simple clarity – basic plotlines mixed with truisms and pathos:
“He ran down to the harbour and asked a big ship to take them to the South Pole. But his voice was much too small to be heard over the ship’s horn.”
So much expressed so simply – the vastness of the ship and the world as compared to a small boy asking for help.

Blown Away
The new addition to the ‘penguin’ canon of literature, and published in August of this year is Blown Away by Rob Biddulph. I implore you to find and read a copy. Rob Biddulph’s blue penguin may be more ‘Hampstead Heath’ inspired than normal Antarctic penguins, but, like Jeffers, his penguin is simply drawn – Biddulph too remarking that children can put their own emotions into the animals, so simple black dots for eyes work best. With rhyming text, Biddulph explores what happens when Blue the penguin gets blown away on his kite, picking up cargo along the way, and finally setting down onto a jungle island. But does he want to stay?
“’How nice,” says Blue,
A lovely spot,
Although it is
a bit too hot.”
The beauty of this book lies in the small details. Every page is lovingly created so that your eyes pick up the story and the animals’ emotions almost by osmosis – the rhyming text is lovely to read aloud, but the extra touches on the illustrations won me over. A charming Christmas present that’s not just for Christmas!

Dragon Loves Penguin
My last picture book is Dragon Loves Penguin by Debi Gliori, shortlisted for the 2015 Red House Children’s Book Awards. I coordinate the testing in my area for this award, so know very well how popular this book has proved with young children. It celebrates diversity, and is even relevant for those attempting to explain adoption to the very young – in essence it’s about mother’s love. When an egg is abandoned, a dragon without its own egg adopts it, but when it hatches it’s a penguin! Despite the differences, the mother dragon loves the penguin as her own, and the love makes the little penguin brave enough to see off her dragon peers who can’t accept her differences, and also to escape an erupting volcano. Yes, this little picture book is packed full of action – and has adorable illustrations – rarely has a penguin chick looked quite so cute.

The Penguin Who Wanted to Find Out
For slightly older readers, in the Jill Tomlinson series of animal books is The Penguin Who Wanted to Find Out. Beautifully told so that the reader learns about penguins at the same time as digesting the story. Jill Tomlinson’s strength is her ability to weave fiction and non-fiction seamlessly here, with some magical lines:
“The trouble was, not all adults were good at answering questions, or would try.”

The Emperors EggUsborne Beginners Penguin
For those children who want to find out even more, and for adults who can’t tell the difference between an owl and a penguin here are two great non-fiction titles for early learners.The Emperor’s Egg by Martin Jenkins, illustrated by Jane Chapman, is part of the Nature Storybooks series – telling the story of the Emperor penguins. It’s an excellent starting point for a young child wishing to find out more information. It’s not patronising, but is written as if the child is having a conversation with the writer about penguins. Asking questions of the young reader, particularly ones that make them think, is a lovely way to write a non-fiction book. No wonder this won the TES Junior Information Book Award. The Usborne Beginners series has a book on penguins; I like this series for their gentle introduction to non-fiction. Helpfully containing a glossary and an index, and with short chunks of text throughout for easily digestible facts. It also covers many different types of penguins. Usborne have also had their facts checked by experts in the field, which sadly, is not true of all children’s non-fiction in the marketplace.

Five Children on the Western Front by Kate Saunders

Five Children on the Western Front
Hailed with a chorus of five star reviews when published last year, Five Children on the Western Front really does deserve all accolades thrown at it. Kate Saunders has taken E Nesbit’s story of the sand fairy, the psammead, from Five Children and It, and moved it gently into the era of the First World War. The book works as a stand-alone novel, but those with prior knowledge of the psammead won’t be in any way disappointed with the update. It’s as if E Nesbit herself had written it. The children, despite some having reached young adulthood, stay divinely in character, as does the psammead – and the period details of the time are lovingly rendered. The manners, the setting, the dialogue are all completely convincing and beautifully crafted. What struck me most however, was that Kate Saunders manages to convey the horror of the war injuries, the devastation of the deaths, and the immense change that the war wrought on the world without scaring any young child reading the book. I enjoyed it fully as an adult read, but have no qualms reading this war literature piece to the eight year olds and older with whom I read (although reading aloud may be difficult as I was reduced to tears on more than one occasion!) I couldn’t recommend a book more highly – a perfect example of how a children’s book should be.

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