friendship

Christmas Books Roundup 2017

““Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents,” grumbled Jo” (Little Women), but for me, presents means books. So, if you’re looking to treat your children to some rectangular shapes in their stockings and under the tree, here are my highlights…

Picture Books


Oliver Elephant by Lou Peacock and Helen Stephens (Nosy Crow)
My top pick for the season is definitely this heartwarming Christmassy through-and-through tale about a Christmas present shopping trip, in which mummy has a long list, a pram to manoeuvre, her children Noah and Evie-May, and Noah’s toy elephant. With sparkling rhythmic rhyming, and huge attention to detail in the department store colourwash illustrations, this will make every reader feel that magical Christmas time aura. There’s much to love in the familiar tale of a temporarily lost toy in a large store, but Peacock and Stephens manage to inject their own personality onto the book, with lots of love, expression and minute detail. I love the mittens on strings, the busyness of the store, the flushed faces of the customers, the diversity of the cast, and the wonderful emotion on the face of the mother (tired yet happy), and Noah (small in a world of big things). His playfulness with the elephant, and the frustrated sympathy of his mother is pitch perfect. And of course, there’s a happy Christmas ending. You can buy it here.


The Princess and the Christmas Rescue by Caryl Hart and Sarah Warburton (Nosy Crow)
This hilarious picture book for Christmas manages to combine fairy tale allusions (it is about a princess after all), feminism (girl engineers), and an ironic Amazon-like present-picking machine all in a neat sing-song rhyme. But mainly, this is an adorable rhyming picture book about finding friends. Princess Eliza loves to make things, but her parents are worried at her lack of friends. When the Christmas elves run into trouble in the busy lead-up to Christmas, Eliza steps in to help, and finds that as well as being a super duper inventor, there’s fun in friendship too. Exquisite illustrations in bright colours that mix the essence of Christmas (ribbons, elves, cosy armchairs by the fire) with ‘Wallace and Gromit’ type inventions. Christmas bliss. You can buy it here.


All I Want for Christmas by Rachel Bright (Orchard Books)
Rachel Bright is superb at wrapping moral lessons in her books, and this Christmas treat is no different. It’s not an illustrated version of Mariah Carey’s Christmas hit, but it does carry the same message – as well as cookies and trees, and presents and roast dinners, what this Big Penguin really wants is love. Yes, this is about penguins, not humans. Shown first in a snowglobe on a mantelpiece, the story opens up to explore the penguins’ world in the lead up to Christmas. Cute illustrations, and a fabulous spread in the middle that shows miniature vignettes of Big Penguin and Little Penguin busy doing the ‘hundred things’ to get ready, this is an adorable read. You can purchase it here.


Last Stop on the Reindeer Express by Maudie Powell-Tuck and Karl James Mountford (Little Tiger Press)
The next title also features a family with a missing adult, but here they are human, and there is a more pronounced emphasis on families who can’t be together at Christmas time. Mia’s dad can’t come home for Christmas, but luckily for her, she stumbles across a magical postbox with a door to The Reindeer Express, which manages to convey her to her father for a Christmas hug, and still be back with her mother for Christmas.

Karl James Mountford’s illustrations feel globally Christmassy, with muted earthy tones, in particular a profusion of rusty red, as he conveys a timelessness to the images – from the dress of the people, which feels old-fashioned, to the takeaway cups of mulled wine, which feel up-to-the-minute. With maps and explorers’ articles, and a globe-trotting reindeer, the book feels as if it’s digging into a magical time of exploration and discovery, as well as showcasing a homely setting with snow outside the window. Our heroine wears glasses and is an eager and curious child. But what sets this book apart is its production. With thick pages, peek-throughs and cut-outs, and the most tactile cut-away cover, this truly feels like a gift. Romantic and yet curiously real. You can purchase it here.


A Christmas Carol: Search and Find by Louise Pigott and Studio Press
Another beautifully produced book, with silver foil on the cover, this classic Christmas story is retold with search and find scenes – both the characters and setting are illustrated at the outset, with a brief summary of author and text, and then the story is told through double page illustration scenes, alongside an illustration key, which asks the reader to find certain people and objects (such as five red robins, a wistful scrooge, and the ghost of Christmas yet to come).

Through minimal text but large illustrations, both the characters and their narratives are revealed. It’s clever, and wonderfully appealing, in that it’s a book that could be shared, and certainly pored over, as each scene is so wonderfully detailed. Answers, are of course, at the back. You can purchase it here.

Chapter Books:
Three chapter books for you, each from an established series, but this time with their ‘Christmas theme’ stamped all over the cover and narrative. My testers (little kiddies) adore all three series, and couldn’t wait to read them – so they won’t be under my tree!


Polly and the Puffin: The Happy Christmas by Jenny Colgan, illustrated by Thomas Docherty (Hachette)
I have the distinct feeling that the children and I like this book for very different reasons, but that’s the joyous element of this book, which is written to be shared by being read aloud (with references to hugs, and an authorial voice).

Polly and Neil (her real puffin) are all ready for Christmas, but it’s only November, and such a long time to wait. And then things start to go wrong. Will it ever be Christmas? Will the puffling hatch? Will Wrong Puffin find his way home? There is a huge infusion of wit and personality here – from Polly’s moods, and her quirks (from calling the toy puffin Wrong Puffin, to her grumpiness with her real puffin, Neil) to the illustrator’s humour (see the contented yet oblivious cat lying on the sofa, the wine bottle from Christmas Eve and bleary parents at Christmas Day morning). The narrative voice is warm and comforting, just right for Christmas Eve. There are loads of extras at the back too – recipes, activities and jokes. Buy it here.


Shifty McGifty and Slippery Sam: Jingle Bells by Tracey Corderoy and Steven Lenton (Nosy Crow)
This pair of cake-baking, crime-solving dogs are never far from mischief, and the delight of these little books is that they each contain three stories in one book – good for short attention spans and first readers. Only the first story is Christmas-themed, with the delightful Santa Paws, but the other two tales are equally strong and eventful: Sea-Monster Ahoy! and Lucky Cat. With plentiful illustrations in two-tone colour, lots of lively language, and fast plots, these are lovely little bursts of entertainment. You can purchase it here.


There’s a Dragon in My Stocking by Tom Nicoll, illustrated by Sarah Horne (Stripes)
Lastly, and for slightly older readers, this Christmassy addition to the fabulous ‘There’s a Dragon in my Dinner!’ series continues the adventures of Eric, who was first introduced when he discovered a mini dragon (Pan) in his takeaway dinner. In this funny sequel, Pan’s parents arrive down the chimney. Looking after one dragon and stopping fires was bad enough, but now Eric has three on his hands, and his parents are entertaining on Christmas day. When disaster hits their lunch plans, it might just be that three little dragons come in useful. As well as being huge fun, Nicoll captures the family personalities beautifully, especially annoying Toby from next door, and his Mum (complete with mobile phone!). You can buy it here.

Happy Christmas shopping.

My Autumn Picture Book Round Up 2017

It has been so hard to narrow down this list of picture book choices – there have been so many delightful books landing on MinervaReads’s desk this autumn. But here are my absolute favourites this quarter:

Oi Cat by Kes Gray and Jim Field
You might have thought by now, after Oi Frog and Oi Dog, that this series would have become a little jaded. Judging by the colour of this new one though, you’d be completely wrong. Fresh as ever, bright and vibrant, the characters keep developing and the rhymes keep evolving. It’s all about changing the rules – depending on who’s in charge – the Dog, the Frog or the Cat. Giggly it certainly is, bright and cartoon-like, with masses of personality. There are even rhymes with alpacas, flamingos and lemurs, and a vibrant pink flip up page at the end. A book at which you must take a look. It must be catching…You can buy yours here.

Nothing Rhymes with Orange by Adam Rex
And following swiftly on from rhyming animals, here be rhyming fruit. It’s long been a statement of fact that nothing rhymes with orange, but Adam Rex explores how that might make Orange feel. If grapes can wear capes and hairy pears are tied to chairs, the fruits get a little carried away and start to sing a rhyming song – except they leave out Orange. Yes, this book is as zany as it sounds. With images of real fruit stuck in a kind of weird illustrated landscape with drawn on expressions and text that looks as if it has been written with a sharpie pen, and mentions of Nietzsche, it’s a strange kind of picture book. Except that somehow it works – it certainly teaches about exotic fruits, but it also explores feeling left out and how to include someone. A bizarre and yet rather striking addition. Rhyme yourself silly here.

The Squirrels Who Squabbled by Rachel Bright and Jim Field
Another moral lesson to be learned in this picture book, with squirrels on the front who would fit in well in Oi Cat, (the illustrator Jim Field has been busy). This book about competitiveness, sharing and friendship brims forth with autumnal charm in its illustrations, and with wit in Bright’s brilliantly evocative and poetic text. It also rhymes – one squirrel is called Cyril, for example, but the rhyming here is less forced and provocative than the above picture books. The descriptions are plenty: the sky rages red, the forest towers, and the frosting of winter glitters ahead. The text tells the tale of the squirrel who saved nothing for winter and the squirrel who has an abundance. When they fight over securing a last pine cone, there is immense danger in the quest. The competitive squabbling ends in much mirth and an acceptance of sharing with friends. Great momentum, phenomenal nature landscapes – this is an autumn treat I want to share with everyone. Buy your copy here.

The Wolf, the Duck and the Mouse by Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen
More animal companionship, and another classic author/illustrator pairing in this tale about a duck and a mouse who get swallowed by a wolf, and decide to live in his belly. We’re back to the slightly zany here, with influences including Jonah (stuck in a whale’s stomach) but also Aesop, in animal tales that impart morals.

Turning pre-conceived ideas on their head, it turns out it’s not so bad for the mouse to be swallowed by a wolf – after all it’s rather comfy inside, and it removes the fear of being hunted. Especially when there’s a companion already within (the duck), who explains that “I may have been swallowed, but I have no intention of being eaten.” There are plenty of laughs – the stomach seems fairly well equipped; there’s even a painting on the wall, and to complement the rather old-fashioned tone of the interior – candlesticks, grapes, red wine – the language is that of old fairy-tales set in woods – ‘flagon of wine, hunk of cheese, beeswax candles’. Things turn a little strange when the animals party with a record-player (children might wonder what this is), but then strange is expected with this author/illustrator pairing. Muted grey and brown colours lend a warmth and an old-fashioned vibe. There’s a nod to being flexible and adaptable in this tale, and a hint of karma when the hunter becomes the hunted. Explore the narrative here.

Hic! By Anushka Ravishankar and Christiane Pieper
Something slightly more human in this well-crafted book about an issue that can flummox a child, but about which I’ve never seen another picture book: what to do when you have the hiccups. The simple premise of this book is the extraordinary advice given to a child as to how to rid themselves of the hiccups. The girl tries everything from the sublime to the ridiculous, and the more ridiculous. With each ‘cure’ attempted, the next hiccup is even more disastrous (as I suppose it would be if you licked mustard off your nose!). The illustrations are a delight, kept to yellow, blue and black, it lends a distinct look to the book, and the expressions of the children are energetic, humorous and endearing. Cleverly, each remedy rhymes with hic, but alas, there is no solution. Try not to catch hiccups here.

Lines by Suzy Lee
A wordless picture book that starts with a pencil line and evolves into a skater dancing her way across the ice white page. She’s small against the size of the page, but wonderfully fluent in her movements. She feels real, she seems to move. Her red cap and mittens stand out against the white, but the reader will be most entranced by the movement of her legs – the few simple pencil strokes that indicate her direction of travel, her spins and loops, her swirls and twirls. The reader will marvel at the power of the pencil. But when she falls and tumbles, it turns out that she has been nothing but an artist’s impression and the paper is crumpled.

The ending is happy. Once unfolded, the paper once again becomes an ice rink, although cleverly, not so smooth anymore, and our skater is joined by others. No words are needed to explore the narrative here: the freedom of our skater, the joyfulness of the ice rink, and the stretch of the imagination. Stunning. You can find it here.

 

When I Grow Up: A Guest Blog from Steve Antony

A few years ago, I and my daughter were lucky enough to go and see the show Matilda. Ever since, a popular song in our house has been ‘When I Grow Up’, both for the visual stimuli it recalls upon hearing it (thanks to the wonderful vivacity of the show), but also because of the sentiments expressed. Children can access its dreams of the future – its playfulness with projected children’s ideas of adulthood – being free of restrictions yet also not shackled by responsibility, and for adults there is a glint of nostalgia for the children they once were, as well as the reminder that we do have certain freedoms.

So, it was with great glee that I saw the lyrics being published as a children’s picture book, When I Grow Up by Tim Minchin, illustrated with the clever, observant and witty illustrations of Steve Antony. Not only does Antony express the vibrancy of the show, the emotion of the words, and the dream-like quality of the implications while keeping it real, but he also displays his trademark incidental inclusion – not just of children of all different backgrounds and abilities, but also subtle cultural allusions too. Look closely to find the Statue of Liberty holding aloft an ice cream, Mr Panda’s doughnuts, a sketch of Roald Dahl and more. Below, Steve Antony explains how the book came about, and the pressures of illustrating such an iconic song.

It’s 4AM. I am sat cross-legged on the my office floor surrounded by pencil shavings, staring at a blank piece of paper. I can recall that moment vividly.

I can recall another moment, too. The email via my literary agent Elizabeth Roy was totally out of the blue. A complete and utter surprise. I read it again and again. Tim Minchin would like to know if you might be interested in illustrating a picture book adaptation of WHEN I GROW UP from the hit musical Matilda.

The hard-to-explain thing is that I’d been waiting years for something like this without knowing exactly what ‘this thing I was waiting for’ was. A dream collaboration in every sense. WHEN I GROW UP would become my first illustrator-only picture book, and I couldn’t wait to get started.

I listened to the song over and over and over again. The more I listened to the song, the more I tried to draw how it made me feel. Wistful. Nostalgic. A bit sad. A bit happy. Exhilarated. Joyous. Hopeful. So many emotions. How can I convey all these emotions in one visual narrative?

I read and reread the song’s text several times over, without the piano, and tried imagining what ‘watching cartoons until your eyes go square’ or ‘eating sweets every day on the way to work’ or ‘fighting the monsters under your bed’ might look like. How will I take all these separate moments and seamlessly string them all together?

I also considered how I might incorporate the Matilda we all know and love into the book. Matilda, one of the most loved children’s books of all time. Can I even do that, and would that really be the best approach?

When I Grow Up is an incredibly popular song. It’s arguably the best, most iconic song from the musical Matilda and practically every child seems to know it off by heart, probably because it’s sang in schools up and down the country. How will I possibly do the song justice?

Slowly but surely, I began to realise just how challenging this would be. The challenge wasn’t illustrating Tim’s words. The challenge was adapting his words into a visual story while also capturing the essence of the song. Colours was another issue, in part because of my red-green colour blindness, but I’ll save that for another blog.

I tried using animal characters, but that didn’t work. I tried using adults, but that didn’t work either. I tried a drawing a dream sequence; that kind of worked but not quite. I tried drawing a dual narrative: an adult’s perspective and a child’s perspective. Too complicated. The one thing I didn’t do was draw ‘Matilda‘. There’s no way I can copy Quentin’s and it just didn’t feel right to draw a ‘new version’.

So many questions. So many options. Time was ticking away. I was surrounded by crumpled paper. Pencil shavings everywhere. Imposter syndrome began to creep in.

The problem was this. I was trying too hard. I wasn’t having fun. So I changed my approach. I began imagining how the child version of me would illustrate Tim’s song. In doing so I remembered how I used to fantasise about growing up: being able to stay up late, go on shopping sprees in Toys R Us, eat and drink whatever I want, whenever I want.

For me, When I Grow Up became about remembering that eagerness, that sense of ‘anything-is-possible’ hope and imagination we all once had as a child before getting bogged down with all our grown-up responsibilities. I would most definitely eat treats every day, climb the tallest trees and stay up late every night.

Speaking of which, it’s midnight. The book is now published. I couldn’t be happier with it. Tomorrow I’ll be onstage at Leicester Square theatre alongside Tim Minchin. Twitter’s gone a bit mental and I’m ‘liking’ and retweeting when really I should really be sleeping. Tim’s obviously noticed this because he just tweeted me: “Oi. Get to bed. Big weekend ahead.” He’s right. I’m off to bed. Goodnight.

With huge thanks to Steve Antony for making time in his schedule to write this for me. And you can buy your own copy of the book here.

The Snow Angel by Lauren St John, illustrated by Catherine Hyde


Writers love to inflict great harm on their characters – the more dramatic their downfall, the more a novel can pack a punch. And Lauren St John’s latest novel certainly puts her main character to the test. Sadly, it was the all-too-real plight of orphaned and abandoned children in Zimbabwe (those who have lost parents, become war children or refugees), which inspired St John to pen The Snow Angel. However, like all good children’s literature, it not only reflects the world but strives to find a positive note, an optimistic resolution, showing the goodness that can be found too.

Eleven-year-old Makena lives happily in Nairobi with her mother and father, and like her father (who is a mountain guide), she adores the mountains, and she hopes that one day, with his help, she will climb Mount Kenya. But, as can sometimes happen in life, one day everything she knows turns upside down, and she is orphaned and alone, and St John shows the reader just how far children can fall in a flash.

Although Makena is taken in by a family member, she is treated abhorrently, and runs away, managing (just) to carve a life for herself in the Nairobi slums. Here, surprisingly, St John changes perspective briefly to a third person adult point of view, an unusual proposition in a children’s book, to explore the narrative from a rescuer’s viewpoint. Makena, seemingly, is in too much danger and too weak to view what happens next. The introduction of an adult’s perspective here (Helen, a woman rescuing children from the slums) gives the reader a new insight and, then, once switched back to Makena, shows how redemption can come, although slowly, and happy endings abound.

The issues within this book are many and layered, and yet the reader never once feels as if they are reading an ‘issue’ book. The book touches upon ebola, famine, child soldiers and the like, explaining the reason for the multitude of children living alone in the slums, but far stronger than the issues is St John’s evocation of the setting – the beauty of the African mountains, the colour of the fruits and scents of food at roadside vendors, the wonder of flowers and plants, and the overriding sense of the healing power of nature.

Lauren St John keeps eking out pockets of hope even in the midst of Makena’s deeply despairing situation. From the friendships she forges around her, to the talk of inspirational people, to the optimism she encounters that shows her a way forward. This is mainly down to a character called Snow, another child all alone, who teaches Makena how to find the good in things – how to have ambition and believe in a future, and to see the magic in everything.

There is, in fact, not a blatant magic in the book, but a subtle undercurrent of coincidence, folklore, superstition and in the end, an animal that seems to be able to show Makena the right path, physically and spiritually. As with real life, there is wonder in the world if you look for it. This is brought to life not only by the story, but by Catherine Hyde’s subtle interspersed black and white illustrations, which increase the idea of magic, nature and this sense of wonder.

But overall, and what drives the narrative, is not just the goodness and kindness pointed out by St John, but the vivacity of the characters. Each child, in their struggle to survive, shows believable tenacity and courage, and each adult is rounded and real – not completely selfless, not completely faultless, and when it comes to the ‘baddies’, not completely evil. The characters are as diverse and vibrant as the settings.

Not every book is written for a reason, other than that there’s a great story to tell – but beneath the story the reader can tell that St John is attempting to influence her readers – getting them to see changes that can be made for a better future. The hardback copy comes complete with a ribbon bookmark, and you’d do well to bookmark the acknowledgements too, in which St John mentions a few ways in which children too could try to have a positive impact on the world, even if they don’t write their own novels. It’s an inspiring list, which I think Makena would try hard to complete. A great story, easy to read, and swiftly devoured. For age 9+ years. You can buy it here.

Please note that I carried out some paid work for the publisher on the above title, but this is no way influenced my review of the book.

The Wizards of Once by Cressida Cowell


There’s so much chatter about ‘gender’ at the moment, so it’s liberating to see another children’s book with dual protagonists – a boy and a girl, both on a mission to overcome perceived ideas of who they should be and how they should turn out.

Set in a sort of long-ago Iron Age, in which iron defeats magic, and before the British nation has any sort of identity, this is tribal warfare in deep dark forests, in which warriors are pitted against wizards, and witches are a third tribe, perhaps extinct, but definitely most evil.

Prince Xar is a princely Wizard, whose magic hasn’t ‘come in’ yet, and is desperate to join his peers and brother in that attribute. Wish is a Warrior, determined to express both her independence and worth to her mother, the Warrior Queen. When tweens Xar and Wish meet by happenchance in the woods, both rebelling against their parents, it sets forth a rollercoaster of events and opportunities for both of them to prove themselves. Before long, it becomes apparent that the two tribes may need to come together in order to defeat a third.

Cressida Cowell is an accomplished storyteller, having risen to fame with her prior series, How To Train Your Dragon. Not dissimilar, this is a world teeming with engaging characters, effervescent humour, and hugely wondrous world-building. Cowell has a particular ability to pit deep questions alongside silliness and humour, so that readers are absorbing both with great delight. Cowell poses terrific questions such as, ‘what if what you had been taught to believe was wrong?’, and shows the reader how to see beyond someone else’s differences, as well as challenging perceived notions of upbringing and parents’ perceived perfection.

There is plenty to love. Both characters, being royal subjects, are surrounded by entourages – Xar’s is particularly large, and includes a bird with a screaming sense of when things are rebellious or wrong (reminiscent of The Lion King’s Zazu). Wish’s entourage includes a bodyguard who faints at the first sign of danger, and an enchanted spoon.

This kind of wackiness is enhanced by the purposefully haphazard illustrations (drawn by Cowell herself) that sit alongside the text, from the map of the lands at the beginning, to the various facial expressions of the spoon. The illustrations are scribbly and sketchy and give the impression of being spontaneous and highly creative, as energetic as the prose itself.

The pace is fleet of foot and unrelenting, and this new world is populated with a realm of enchanting and peculiar creatures, from slow but philosophical giants to sprites, fairies, and ogres, all with their own individual personalities – be it cute and small, or large and menacing.

But most of all, two things stand out. Firstly, Cowell’s voice, which is confident and unswerving, appealing to her young readers without didacticism or being patronising, but making them think. It also carries a humour and slight quirkiness, even posing the question to her readership of who this omniscient narrator might be within the story. And secondly, the emotional intelligence with which she writes her young characters – they are authentic in their selfishness and desires as well as their relationships with their parents and siblings, and yet courageous and resilient, adaptable to the changes happening around them.

If you buy a hardback copy, do look under the dust jacket for a rather shimmery surprise. Unfortunately though, the only fault lies also in the production. In my copy, the blackness of the background on many pages rubbed off on my fingers, leaving an inky residue, which meant that the book not only touched my heart, but certainly left its mark. For the younger end of the middle grade category – this is suitable from 8+ years. You can buy your own signed exclusive edition from Waterstones here.

Worry Angels

I’m delighted to host the launch video for Worry Angels by Sita Brahmachari, illustrated by Jane Ray. This super-readable book deals with issues around family breakup, anxiety and refugees, using the healing powers of art and friendship to overcome worries. Despite being a shorter read, it’s beautifully soul-searching and handles complex emotions in an age-appropriate way, providing much space for thought and contemplation. I highly recommend. Below, Sita Brahmachari introduces the video and video artist:

I first met the artist Grace Emily Manning when I walked into a cafe and she had an exhibition of her beautiful Kites flying above my head. I had just been asked by Pop Up Festival to create an exhibition around my novel ‘Kite Spirit’ and so I thought our connection was ‘meant to be’. I contacted her and found that she was studying for her final year at Central St Martins and asked if she would like to create an installation so that people would have the experience of physically walking inside my book! Grace worked with textile artists from The Royal Opera House and created the most beautiful landscape of owls, moss, heather​ and sculptures for readers to explore the themes of the story. Since then Grace and I have worked together on many projects. She has created a magical patchwork storytelling quilt for me to take around to schools for creative writing inspiration (a film of this has been made for Pop Up Festival.) She created an animated for my novel ‘Red Leaves’ and now this beautiful animation for ‘Worry Angels’.

TRAILER: Worry Angels by Sita Brahmachari from Barrington Stoke on Vimeo.

It’s by no coincidence that the name of the artist-teacher who runs the Sandcastle Support Centre is also called Grace! The ‘Worry Angels’ book trailer gives a visual insight into some of the symbolic elements of my story and captures deep feelings children and young people have about how we can communicate our worries and anxieties even when everything in life feels like its changing and built on shifting sands. 

Worry Angels is published today by Barrington Stoke, and is available to buy here.

Grace Emily Manning’s website can be found here

 

 

Shapes, Colours, Music and Mystery

One of the wonders of reading is being able to sew threads through the most unlikely of book pairings, and knit them together. Intertextuality is the relationship between texts: common links and themes, references and allusions, and working out how these make the books stand together or apart.


The Cranky Caterpillar is a new picture book from artist Richard Graham and ostensibly shows a young child, Ezra, trying to cheer up a cranky caterpillar who is stuck inside a piano. Graham utilises a great deal of humour and pathos in his tale, as Ezra tries everything from introducing fresh air to concocting beautiful meals, and buying a new hat. Graham’s artistry comes to the fore here in his depiction of a little girl employing all the schemes to cheer up the caterpillar that she would enjoy herself, and this shows on her sympathetically expressive face. But there are also clues as to where the depths of the story lie in her design – her legs, for example, are shaped like musical notes, which becomes more obvious as the book continues, and there is a growing abundance of tranquility in her face when she hears music.

Because although on one level the book is about learning to articulate emotion, showing kindness to another who is unhappy, and the importance of friendship, on another level the book introduces the world of synaesthesia – how one sensory stimulation leads to automatic secondary stimulation, such as the colour of music, or the music of colour. Here, Graham takes inspiration from Kandinsky, who believed that he could hear music when he saw colours – and the illustrations halfway through the book are a paean to Kandinsky’s abstract phase. Kandinsky, who believed that colour itself is an art form, that it isn’t always necessary to show the recognisable shape of something. The Cranky Caterpillar does have a recognisable story shape of course, with a happy ending, as with most caterpillars in storybooks – but there’s a wondrous depth and craft to this picture book too – making it work on many levels. Graham’s use of colours in geometric shapes sings through the pages of the book, at the point when Ezra gathers a band to play joyful music to the caterpillar, in a moving anticipation of his eventual flight of happiness.

In the same way in which graphic shapes work as a key component to uncovering the mystery in Robin Steven’s The Guggenheim Mystery. This new middle grade novel has, at its heart, the mystery of the theft of the Kandinsky painting, ‘In the Black Square’.

The Guggenheim Mystery tells the story of Ted, a boy with a form of autism, who is visiting his aunt and cousin in New York, when a painting mysteriously disappears from the Guggenheim art gallery, of which his aunt is the curator. When the spotlight falls firmly on her as culprit, Ted and his cousins set off on an adventure to clear her name, and by doing so learn about the value of art. (Wonderfully, the author has borrowed from an episode in her own mother’s past for this – her mother worked at the Ashmolean in Oxford when a Cezanne painting was stolen.)

The book’s sense of place is vital, as Ted and his cousins move through the subway, Times Square, Brooklyn and Central Park to follow up leads to their detective work. Having been to NY many times, and most recently last month, I can attest to the accuracy and authenticity of the settings – as well as confirm that the painting is firmly in place in the museum (and there’s a wonderful children’s audio commentary which is well worth the visit!). But reading the book, whether you have been to New York or not, certainly calls to mind the excitement and uniqueness of this incredible city.

What’s more, one gets the feeling that Steven’s protagonist, Ted, sees the world more like Kandinsky than the rest of us:

“I noticed that the tilt of the Earth and the position of the sun meant that its light was passing through more air to reach ground level in New York. Each air molecule it bumped against made it scatter more and more, so that by the time it reached our eyes it was red and yellow instead of blue.”

Of course, his autism makes his senses more acute – accentuating sounds, colours, shapes. In fact, it’s Ted’s difference in seeing things that enables him to see things that others miss, and thereby solve the mystery. He wants to find patterns and logic in what he sees, which contrasts beautifully with his absorption of the chaos and noise of New York. But it also brings into play Kandinsky and the Guggenheim itself. He transforms the chaos into a theory and finally solves the jigsaw, with much help from the shapes and patterns of the Guggenheim itself – the whorls of the ramps, the triangles of the stairs, the curvature of the exterior.

This too links back to the Kandinsky painting, which shows the order and clean shapes of the weather, as well as depicting an expressiveness of the abstract.

The power of the book is in the very fact that Stevens distils this all into logical simplicity for Ted and for the reader – each chapter fastidiously traipses through the facts of the case, eliminating the impossibles. It’s easy to follow, but intriguing to read – I didn’t guess the culprit. It also follows on from Ted and his cousins’ appearance in The London Eye Mystery, and, cleverly maintains their distinctive personalities and relationships (despite having been written by a different author, the late Siobhan Dowd).

Both The Cranky Caterpillar and The Guggenheim Mystery are stellar examples of artistic endeavours coming to fruition. Richard Graham is an upcycling artist, and took his inspiration from not only Kandinsky, but from the hammers inside a cast-off piano. Look carefully at the detail in the illustrations and you’ll see how the caterpillar is crafted, as well as the most carefully crafted illustrations – taking inspiration from great artists, but also from the visuality of music. Stevens was asked to write the mystery as a sequel to late author Siobhan Dowd’s The London Eye Mystery, having been left with just the title to go on. With both books there is a pattern to their work, a pattern through shapes and colours and imagination. Perfect books for exploring children’s own creative endeavours.

You can buy The Cranky Caterpillar by Richard Graham here and The Guggenheim Mystery by Robin Stevens and Siobhan Dowd here.

 

Kevin by Rob Biddulph

Reading is so satisfying because it’s one of the closest ways we have of getting inside someone else’s brain – and I don’t mean just inside the characters’ thoughts, but also the author’s. It’s fascinating to see how someone else’s mind works, how they deal with a particular situation, or even simply the fluffy rainbows and unicorns that bounce about in their head.

One of the most striking ways some children have of utilising their imagination is in the creation of an imaginary friend. I’ve looked at this a little bit here to explore the whys of this phenomena – and trust me I think it’s something that can pervade adulthood too, especially for writers – I know my characters certainly live with me in one way or another.

Rob Biddulph’s latest picture book character explores this phenomena with a very clear motive. Sid Gibbons invents his imaginary friend as a scapegoat – someone to blame when Sid himself messes up. His mother, wisely, demands evidence of this guilty persona, and Sid draws Kevin (his imaginary friend) in quite acute detail, and his mother, wisely again, doesn’t ‘disbelieve’ in the friend – only in the premise that Kevin, not Sid, is to blame.

By the end of the story, empathy with Kevin shows Sid the error of his ways, (through a delightful little twist in the middle of the story), and before long Sid not only starts behaving, but enjoying his time with Kevin – and Biddulph sneakily lets the reader into the secret that Sid’s not the only child to have invented an imaginary friend.

Biddulph brings his distinctive rhyming style to this picture book, but has expanded upon it, so the sentences are longer, but still retain the rhythm and bounce of his previous books. The illustrations though, are exquisite. Freed from the animals of Penguin Blue, Biddulph not only portrays his humans with style and personality – from Sid’s trapper hat to his mother’s slippers – but also crafts the most appealing make-believe world, complete with a vast array of colourful flowers, spotty rainbows, and daft made-up beastie creatures. Shot through with a wide colour palate, they are nostalgic for adults used to 1970’s fashions, and vibrant for young children. Biddulph has a certain talent for images that appear simple, but are layered with detail. It’s fun to try to copy them – many children do (and for those with adults on twitter, you can follow his work on #drawwithRob).

What’s more the moral messages throughout – not blaming others, saying sorry, understanding others, cherishing friendship – aren’t spelled out in a pompous saccharine way, but carefully dripped through the story so that they are gently absorbed.

My only quibble is the portrayal of the Dad behind a newspaper and the mother with takeaway coffee and ugg boots, although in Biddulph’s defence perhaps it is just an accurate reflection of UK middle-class suburbia. Full marks though for the diversity of the children on the last pages – there’ll be much fun for children in spotting the different children, different beasties and familiar playground equipment. Watch out too for allusions to prior Biddulph picture books, and the final image, which suggests that sometimes Biddulph too escapes to his own imaginary world. You can buy your own copy here.

The Explorer by Katherine Rundell, illustrated by Hannah Horn

Katherine Rundell publishes her children’s books with an effortless breathlessness; they are dizzying in their sumptuous prose and expert storytelling, put children in the most challenging environments – from the rooftops of Paris in Rooftoppers to the snowy tundra of Russia in The Wolf Wilder, not to mention the African savannah and then harsh boarding school of The Girl Savage, and yet the books also manage to speak to the reader with a simple sublime truth. Rundell’s latest, The Explorer, takes the child protagonists to an even greater extreme, crash-landing them in the Amazon jungle.

Fred, Con, Lila and Max are alone with no food and no shelter. They must learn to navigate the unknown territory in which they find themselves, as well as find a route back to civilisation. At first, they look only for food and water, but then by accident, stumble across a map marked with an X – a sign that they are not alone, as they had envisaged. With growing courage, and a desire to survive, the children handcraft a raft which should take them to the X. But X marks the spot of someone else’s home, and they are not entirely welcome.

Rundell’s ability to handle the very different characteristics of the four children is apparent from the beginning, each personality drawing conflict with the others, and yet each being endearing and frustrating in their own way. The interaction between them, in very difficult circumstances, is as dramatic as any theatre production – the children forge through the jungle, all the while perpetuating the conflict between them, and quite often the struggle within themselves. Fred is loveable as a clear leader, but one obsessed with his perception of his father – as a parent who only sees his son’s shortcomings. Con struggles terrifically with the gendered role she has been assigned at home. Lila, with her younger brother Max, is perhaps the most sympathetic and nurturing of the four – she even adopts a sloth – but she too is nuanced – there are no cardboard cutout characters here.

The book immerses the reader in the Amazon. Rundell brings alive the sights and smells of the jungle, the pervasive problem of what to eat, and not only the wildlife, but the children’s relationship with it. Her sense of place is extraordinary, and it is no great surprise to learn that it is taken from first-hand experience. And the added element of Hannah Horn’s illustrations imbue the book with a sense of the wonder and beauty of the Amazon.

But tied up beneath the surface story of children surviving in this jungle environment are intricate questions of belonging, and the spaces we carve out for ourselves in society and culture, the expectations upon us, and also the balance of exploration and exploitation of other cultures.

The reader excuses the ease with which the children stumble upon the map and ‘the explorer’, because the enthusiasm and exuberance with which Rundell brings each new element of the story to light is utterly compelling. The power of flight, the joyfulness of discovery and escape, and the flourish with which Rundell furnishes her novels with truisms and wisdom:

“You don’t have to be in a jungle to be an explorer…Exploring is nothing more than the paying of attention…If you pay ferocious attention to the world, you will be as safe as it is possible to be.”

There’s an extra swiftness to this latest Rundell story, which in part lends it to an even younger readership than that of Rooftoppers and The Wolf Wilder, and although the prose is equally beautiful, the descriptions too are faster. With four child characters there is more dialogue, more action than before.

One can’t help feel that Rundell very much takes her own advice. Her stories bear out that she pays enormous attention to what’s going on around her, as well as plucking the richest bits for her prose. The Explorer bursts with ferocious energy, and each character carries an undercurrent of fierce passion. It’s a book that can’t help but inspire children with their own passion for life. You can buy it here.

Summer 2017 Round-Up

It’s been a tough year to round down the number of books on the desk to just a few highlights for summer reading. And I have to admit that many of my choices are continuations of superb new series, because which child doesn’t love a good meaty series, especially when the writing is as stunning as in those picked below?

Picture Books:

Poppy and the Blooms by Fiona Woodcock sets the tone for summer with its soft colour palette contrasting with its feisty zesty skateboarding wildflower characters. With an environmental message, teamwork, and clever inventive illustrations of urban life, this is an expressive picture book. Emily Gravett is a firm favourite picture book author, and her latest, Old Hat, is full of delightful images. A dog tries desperately to keep up with hat fashions, phenomenally fails but ends up setting an entirely new trend in the process. Surprising, funny, and rather attractive (look out for the traffic cone hat).


More animals in The Nut Stayed Shut by Mike Henson. A cracking read in almost comic book style that aims to show patience pays off. The squirrel can’t open his nut, even with an elephant or a digger. The rhyming text comically explains his dilemma, and a rather animated owl at first documents and then supports his friend. Funny, cartoon-like, and will teach the very littlest about slapstick. For those with a dryer wit and sardonic humour, try I Dare You by Reece Wykes. Two gorillas dare each other in an eating challenge that gets ever more ridiculous. A perfect game of one-upmanship soon degenerates into farce. You have to have as strong a stomach as the gorillas to read this to a sensitive toddler – beware, it doesn’t end well for one of the gorillas. Great fun lies in the illustrations, particularly for adults!


For a human who wants to be an animal, you can’t better I am Actually a Penguin by Sean Taylor, illustrated by Kasia Matyjaszek. Although the title sounds as if it’s Lola speaking from Charlie and Lola, and replicates the more restrictive older brother, this little girl is even more stubborn than Lola. Her family try to implore her to remove her costume, to not unroll toilet paper across the sofa as snow, to not come down the stairs head first in penguin slide mode, but all to no avail. Then finally, she realises she cannot go to school dressed as a penguin – the twist in the ending is equally endearing. A great book for anyone who’s ever schlepped around a stubborn fancy-dress clad toddler, or anyone with a warm sense of humour. More siblings in My Sister is Bigger Than Me by Kate Maryon and Lisa Stubbs. It strikes the perfect dichotomy between wanting a big sister to play and yet not wanting them to totally dominate and rule the games. It’s all love and comfort in the end of course. Quite long, but the rhyme zips you through.

Newly Independent Readers (age 6+ ish):

Those moving onto chapter books will adore the latest offerings here. Experienced author Chris Higgins teams up with illustrator Emily MacKenzie with a new series about a girl called Bella who has just moved house, Trouble Next Door. Bella is a little wobbly until she meets next-door-neighbour Magda. The only problem is that Magda tends to push fun into trouble. Beautifully illustrated and packed full with the kind of winsome anecdotes and age appropriate worries, all resolved with Higgin’s storytelling aplomb. Another fun author is Emma Barnes with her new series Chloe’s Club about three girls, Chloe, Eliza and Aisha, the second of which is just published and called Chloe’s Secret Fairy Godmother Club, illustrated by Mike Love. Inspired by The Secret Seven, clubs are fun for passwords, badges and secret names among other things. The Godmother club is inspired by Eliza’s news that she’s about to become a big sister.

Harriet Muncaster continues to churn out Isadora Moon titles, the latest being Isadora Moon Gets in Trouble. Good thing too, the kids in the library can’t get enough of these, and they’re great for re-reading. Lastly, one of my favourite series continues with new title Super Dog. Wigglesbottom Primary: Super Dog by Pamela Butchart and Becka Moor is a perfectly pitched school story (three in one book), that pleases every child who picks it up. Funny yes, and filled with school dinners, friendships and speculation.

Middle Grade (age 8+ ish):

One of the books of the year for this age group is Letters from the Lighthouse by Emma Carroll. All Carroll’s novels exude a flowing prose, and all tell a great historical story with the lightest of touches. This is no exception. Set in 1941, Olive is evacuated to the coast after a London air raid in which her sister goes missing. But there are mysteries afoot on the Devonshire coast where Olive and her brother stay with the lighthouse keeper. What is his connection to her missing sister? And why is he stockpiling food? With a wonderful use of chapter headings – Keep Calm and Carry On, Careless Talk Costs Lives and so on, the history comes to life as the mystery unfolds. So whether it’s a beach read or for back to school, this tale is set to be an enduring Second World War children’s favourite.

Other gems to look out for are Mold and the Poison Plot by Lorraine Gregory, a debut novel told in Mold’s idiosyncratic dialect in a fantasy world about an unlikely hero. Hilariously funny with smells galore. Gregory has captured the essence of children’s literature – bravery, overcoming bullies, seeing past difference, looking out for the world around us and more. Don’t miss. More hilarity ensues in The Big Fat Totally Bonkers Diary of Pig by Emer Stamp. Going from strength to strength, this fourth in the series continues with Pig’s tales of his adventures, written diary format – with each day being named after how it went, for example, Badfartsyday and Trauma-Morn. It’s inevitable that any book set on a farm and narrated from the point of view of the animals will have connotations with Animal Farm, and even this light-hearted text, purposely written with incorrect grammar, and full of high jinks, farts and slapstick, draws some comparison. Stamp has great fun with Pig’s misunderstanding of idioms, his appalling grammar, and general pigginess, as well as playing up the stereotypes of soldier and warfare, as the plot pivots on a new Battle of the Cow Shed (sorry, Orwell). Kids adore this series. They recognise that although it seems inherently silly on the surface, it’s actually written with acuity and a great sense of structure.

Chunkier and more literary are Beetle Queen by MG Leonard and The Night Spinner by Abi Elphinstone. I reviewed Beetle Boy here, and it was included in many ‘best of’ lists for 2016. Earlier this year, the sequel, Beetle Queen was published. The focus this time shifts to the villain of the piece, Lucretia Cutter – just as duplicitous and delightfully dangerous as before – she induces the kind of fear as when a tarantula crawls across your skin. The story is littered with a plethora of entomological vocabulary, but there is a glossary at the back to help with the scientific language. Again, Leonard captures in a nutshell the beauty of the children’s novel – overcoming difficulties and fears, a clever comic undertone and a plot that sends you scurrying towards the end. I particularly love protagonist Darkus and his relationship with his father.

Rich villains and brave protagonists abound in Abi Elphinstone’s finale to her trilogy that started with The Dreamsnatcher. The Night Spinner is perhaps the best of the three, in which Moll must find the last Amulet in order to defeat the Shadowmasks. In the same vein as the other books, this is an adventure story through and through, as Moll and her allies traverse dangerous and thrilling landscapes, from wildernesses to mountain peaks, always at risk from shadowy villains, with Moll in grand pursuit of saving her friends as well as herself. But this last in the series is definitely the most compelling. The characters have matured, so that there is more thoughtfulness, more depth to both their actions and their motivations, and there is, if anything, an increased tenderness between the humans and their animal friends – drawn of course from Pullman’s daemons – but in this case Moll’s wildcat, and Siddy’s ferret. What is magical about this series is the deep darkness that Elphinstone is able to depict without it being too daunting for a child reader. If anything, it simply adds to the impression of the tumultuous task set for her protagonist – and matches the wide expanse of landscape….This is indeed a story for our times, a tale of perseverance and grit.

Lastly, for those seeking a graphic novel, it doesn’t get much more topnotch than Roller Girl by Victoria Jamieson. An import from the States, Jamieson brings her love of roller derby to a school transition story as she tells Astrid’s coming-of-age over one summer before Junior High. Lapped up by my testers, our heroine here is authentically drawn with much pathos, and readers warm to the sport as much as to the girl. A rip-rolling read.

For those who like a little less story in their books, there is also a good crop of non-fiction to keep readers busy. The Big Bird Spot by Matt Sewell reads like a Where’s Wally nature guide. The book is intended to inspire children to birdwatch in the great outdoors, but also serves as a useful activity in searching for the camouflaged bird on the page. It traverses the world with its scenes, and gives information on species and habitats. Vibrant and luminous.

Another round the world adventure is In Focus: Cities by Libby Walden, a beautiful production that features ten illustrators each showcasing, in their own eclectic way, ten famous cities from around the world including Tokyo, Rome and Istanbul. Giant flaps on each spread reveal further cultural, social and historical identities. Look for the Paris escargot, Moscow’s border guard and his dog, and Charlie in Sydney! A great collaborative idea, which will make you long for even longer vacations.

And lastly, for those who have children bored at the thought of dragging round museums, buy them a copy of The British Museum’s Maurice the Museum Mouse’s Amazing Ancient Facts and Jokes by Tracey Turner, illustrated by Mark Beech. They won’t be bored for long regaling you with such masterpieces as “Which ancient civilisation was the most untidy? Mess-opotamia.” Groan away. That’s it for the summer. MinervaReads will return in September with back to school books and a review of the new fabulous book by Katherine Rundell. Watch this space.