illustration

The Bookshop Girl by Sylvia Bishop, illustrated by Ashley King

So there’s chocolate and there’s books. Two favourite things of mine. Sylvia Bishop clearly feels the same for she has transplanted the idea of Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory into a book about bookshops.

Property Jones was left in the lost property cupboard of a bookshop when she was just five. Now she lives with the owners – a mother and her son. She loves living there, with her adopted family, but as was the case with Charlie Bucket and his family, they are impoverished. And Property is impoverished in more than one way, for she is harbouring a terrible secret – she is illiterate and cannot admit it.

And then, fortunes appear to change when the family win a competition to own Montgomery’s Emporium of Reading Delights, perhaps the greatest bookshop in the world. The shop smells of books, the rooms are themed on a grand scale: a dictionaries room in which everything has a brown tag label; the room of knights and castles books with stone walls and tapestries, books of woodland tales in a room in which the floor is covered with pine needles – and so on, all operated with a series of levers and pulleys – stacks of rooms in loops.

But with more power comes more responsibility, and possibly great danger, not in terms of the grumpy cat who resides there, but the grey man who lurks mysteriously in the shop.

This is an old-fashioned adventure story, wrapped up in the fantastical delight of limitless imagination. There are forgeries and baddies, befuddled old gentlemen and oddball cats, and children seeing and doing more than the adults. But above all, a shining colourful adoration for books.

The ultimate message is one of honesty – being true to yourself and others, and seeing what’s true and what isn’t. What message could be more pertinent in this era of fakery and falsification? And most of all the text and characters feel fresh; the premise may not be new, but it has been executed as if it is – the prose reads freely, the plot moves like liquid gold. If I was seven again this is the book that would make me fall in love with reading. And bookshops.

I was sent this book to review in the early proof stages, but have been promised (and given a sneak peek) of the illustrations that will embellish the book. I have no doubt that they too will be as exquisite as the text.

Don’t miss out – this could be your child’s golden ticket to a lifelong love of books. Suitable for age 6+ years.

You can buy your own golden ticket/bookshop girl here.

Illustrative Wonders

hello-mr-dodo

Hello, Mr Dodo by Nicholas John Frith
Frith’s second picture book arrived in September, just as he picked up the Klaus Flugge Prize for most promising newcomer to children’s picture book illustration for Hector and Hummingbird. With the same technique and a similar style, Hello Mr Dodo! also comes across as being thoroughly nostalgic in look and tone, as well as startlingly fresh and new.

Hello, Mr Dodo! uses a colour palate that looks decidedly retro, with its bright orange front cover contrasting with the blue line boundary, but also the vividly crayon-esque inside, which depicts a house and garden in bright yellow and orange. Already warmed by the illustrations, the reader is tickled by the text, which smiles from the first sentence:

“Martha was cuckoo about birds.”

Cleverly considered, this little girl’s retro name matches the illustrations, and the joke is tucked in for charm. Martha is lovable. She talks to the birds every morning, but then the author uses a typical story construct to add in the excitement – one morning she spies something new with her binoculars. It is the biggest bird Martha has ever seen.

She finds out more by looking in her books – which Frith illustrates in black and white for the reader to see – slotting in much non-fiction about the Dodo. Nestling behind the enlarged pages of the reference book though, is Martha in her bedroom. And this is where Frith shines too – for his attention to detail is exemplary. Martha has modern ‘bird-shaped’ slippers, but a retro trio of flying ducks on her wall. She has bird skeletons and anatomy drawings, but also arrows poking from her toybox, a kite and skipping rope too.

She keeps the Dodo secret, until one day, her secret slips out. The worry on Martha’s face as she scoots to find her Dodo is lusciously drawn, but readers shouldn’t worry too much – the ending not only illustrates Martha’s cleverness, but also gives hope to the Dodo’s future.

There is so much to love about this book, from the small incidental details, such as the squirrel camouflaged on the tree, by which Frith gives a good nod at nature, to the overarching plot, in which the pacing is superb. It feels good to read aloud – the rhythm of the text works brilliantly, and the illustrations fit seamlessly. Already a firm favourite in our house, this is a fantastic picture book with a simple story illustrated to award-winning perfection.

Filled with fun for children, including doughnuts for a Dodo, clues about friendship, bird watching and keeping secrets, I have no doubt this is one to slip into your shopping basket. You’ll love it as much as they do. You can buy it here.

midnight-at-the-zoo
Midnight at the Zoo by Faye Hanson
Another second book, this time from acclaimed illustrator Faye Hanson. Mia and Max are excited – they are going on a school trip to the zoo. But when they arrive, all the animals are asleep or hiding. Max and Mia dawdle in the hope of seeing something that no one else does, and they get left behind, and spend the night in the zoo. Luckily for them, this is when the zoo really comes alive.

This is another exquisite picture book – so different in style from Mr Dodo – this one is utterly contemporary, jam packed with detail and minute pencil and pen marks, giving everything a different texture so that each page looks like an artwork in its own right.

The plot is well handled. Hanson builds the expectation, and also slight trepidation of the young children going on a school trip. The excitement on arrival, followed by slight disappointment, and then she addresses a teacher’s worst nightmare – leaving children behind. Of course, this is where the fun starts here because Max and Mia have an amazingly surreal time at the midnight zoo.

There is a wonderful contrast in terms of colour and light between the zoo in day time and the zoo at night time. In the day, the pages are greens, yellows, reds. At night, the pages positively pulse with spots and flares of almost fluorescent colour – a muted dark purple turquoise background behind the colour injections of a host of colourful butterflies, the incandescent red  of the flamingos, and the shining lights and confetti of the following pages – making a carnival atmosphere. It’s a little like the Disney Electric Light Parade – a feast of light.

Hanson also plays with her language; using a plethora of similes to describe the children’s emotions before the visit – they trundle like elephants, cling like monkeys before scampering excitedly. At the midnight zoo, she uses alliterations; “flouncing flamingos and fabulous fountains,” “loud, laughing lemurs with lanterns alight”.

But for this reader, the most exciting part of the visit to the zoo, in daytime or night, is the attention to detail – the mimicking of the small child’s eyes, which often see the incidentals. Hanson has furnished her book with a wealth of illustrations, which convey depth of characterisation and make Hanson stand out, just as she did with her first book, The Wonder.

Max and Mia’s bedroom is a paean to zoos, with an animal mobile, a striped light switch, toy animals, wallpaper, animal print bed sheets and more. The small vignettes at the zoo need careful inspection to spot where the animals are hiding (look out for the meerkats holding hands). The other school children too – shown on the bus, in the zoo, and at the end when they find Max and Mia, are fabulous – each one with a different personality – each one identifiable throughout. Even the endpapers, one showing a map of the zoo by day, the other by night.

And there’s even a happy ending. Check it out here.

Creating Toto’s Apple by Mathieu Lavoie

A guest post today from Mathieu Lavoie (don’t worry, it’s in English) about creating his wonderful picture book, Toto’s Apple – my review of which you can read here. Mathieu is a children’s book author and illustrator, as well as the creative director and co-founder of Comme des Géants, a children’s book publisher based in Montreal.

toto apple

Our night time routine with the kids involves reading books aloud and once that’s done, we turn the lights down and make up a story for them, on the spot. One very special night, I came up with the story of a little worm that had a hard time reaching an apple, but never gave up. As I was telling the story, which was not as polished as the printed version, I thought I had something interesting. After I was done and the kids were happy, I kissed them good night and rapidly went into my studio and wrote down the first draft of Toto.

toto_1_1stdraft

That first draft is very different from the final version. It’s more “written”, with more descriptions and a much slower pace. I had not yet come up with the more concise writing. The evolution of the story and its style slowly happens in the next few months. I let the story sink in as I re-tell it to myself many times. It haunts me in my everyday life. It’s as if it was continuously whispering in my ear: “I’m the one, listen to me!” At one point, I realised I could make a book with it and I started writing a second draft. From there, I made a storyboard and started cutting out vignettes and playing around with them, with pacing.

toto_2_storyboard

In the early version of Toto, Didi chooses to pick up Toto and swallows him, satisfyingly. That ending was later dropped because we thought it might just be too weird and cruel and we wanted Didi to retain her naive and pure character, echoing Toto’s personality.

toto_3_rearranging

After I’m satisfied with the pacing, I make the drawings that will be used for the final illustrations. Those drawings are quite small at approximately 3 by 4 inches for a full spread. Therefore, I enlarge them with a photocopier.

toto_4_finaldrawing

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I am now ready to start painting with gouaches. It takes me around one month to create the illustrations.

toto_6_finalillustration

After that, I send the illustrations to my publisher who takes it from there. Oh wait, I am the publisher as well! Seriously, throughout the whole process of writing and illustrating Toto, I consult with my good friend and associate at Comme des Géants. Between the two of us, we try to make books as best as they can be!

I hope you enjoyed reading this, and Toto’s Apple as well!

With thanks to Mathieu and Phaidon for this guest post. You can buy a copy of the book here

Fun Younger Fiction

The children’s author, and one time children’s laureate, Michael Rosen, has long been an advocate of funny books for children. He recently announced the winners of the Lollies (see here), but said that “Everyone who is interested in children’s reading knows that for many, many children, the thing that gets them going is a book that makes them fall about laughing. Weirdly, they’re not always that easy to find.” They don’t win the ‘big’ children’s book awards, or get reviewed enough. So here are some very funny titles for newly independent readers:

wilf worrier

Wilf the Mighty Worrier, King of the Jungle by Georgia Pritchett, illustrated by Jamie Littler
Actually the third in the series about Wilf the Mighty Worrier, this is a thoroughly enjoyable book. From the very beginning the author’s self-referential humour kicks in, as she warns you not to read this book – full of scary things and suchlike. Of course it’s as tame as tame can be, that’s half the fun, because Wilf worries about everything…

He has the most evil man in the world (Alan) living next door to him, and when Wilf finds out that he’s going on holiday to Africa, he has even more to worry about – particularly as Alan is coming with.

The text is packed with slapstick, jokes about storytelling, and silly dialogue, as well as the author using funny chapter titles, footnotes, different typefaces and bold text to highlight different comedy aspects of the story. Stuart the woodlouse has a starring role too, told in his own words. It’s highly entertaining, and exaggerated with Littler’s brilliant illustrations, which are cartoon-like and show incidences from different angles (at times from above). Personally for me, the illustrations of little sister Dot win the day.

This is a great book to reassure children who worry a little, featuring a fabulous unlikely hero, and a cast of weird and wonderfuls. Human, fun, and exuberant. You can find it here.

invincibles piglet

The Invincibles: The Piglet Pickle by Caryl Hart, illustrated by Sarah Warburton
Following in the footsteps of such titles as Wigglesbottom Primary with its two tone illustrations throughout – this is another series from the same publishers, and is sparky and bright. Written as if the main character is talking to the reader as a friend, the text is immediately accessible. It also describes everything in a matter of fact every day style – with resonance points for the reader, such as building a den and a school trip.

It’s the school trip that triggers the main plotline – as Nell’s best friend smuggles a piglet home from the farm.

There are some beautiful touches in here, some great characters – the sibling dimension and a super portrayal of a teen is explored with Nell’s older brother Lucas, which is just as well depicted in the illustrations as the text – from his slouching to his brotherly hug.

Twists and turns, and an escaped piglet…the fun continues right to the end. A great new series; taking over the mantle from Horrid Henry’s and suchlike. Available here.

the bad guys

The Bad Guys by Aaron Blabey
Another new series on the block, this is part novel, part comic, with far more illustrations than words, and will go down really well with readers who may struggle with longer text books at this stage. It’s also very funny.

Working on the irony of ‘opposites’, the leader of the bad guys – Mr Wolf – decides that their reputation stinks, so they should work together as good guys on good missions. For example, rescuing animals in distress – firstly by breaking 200 dogs out of the Maximum Security City Dog Pound. Of course, with the bad buys including a Mr Piranha, a Mr Snake and a Mr Shark – it was never going to be plain sailing.

It’s easy to read, packed with stupid humour, and told in great comic book style with adult references, such as to Reservoir Dogs – a typical bad boy gang. No child can fail to laugh at Mr Shark dressed up on page 104. This is definitely a read for the cool kids, even if, for this adult, the idea wasn’t exactly original. You can buy it here.

alfie

The Adventures of Alfie Onion by Vivian French, illustrated by Marta Kissi
Perhaps leaning slightly more to an older age group than the other books featured here, and more dry humour than laughs out loud, this is a denser text with fewer illustrations, and less of a tendency to play with italics and bold text, although it still does to some extent. It’s also a standalone title, as opposed to the other books here.

Told by experienced storyteller Vivian French, Alfie Onion mixes together conventional storytelling and fairy tales with a rather unconventional hero. Alfie’s older brother should be the hero of the story – born as the seventh son of the seventh son and with his name Magnifico Onion, but he’s a little bit dumpy and a little bit cowardly. Step in eighth son, Alfie, to save the day and ensure his family lives Happily Ever After.

Navigating through forests, defeating ogres, talking with steadfast animals, and ignoring meddling magpies, Alfie Onion has many obstacles to overcome.

This Happy Ever After tale is as traditional in its story arc and telling as it is unconventional in its hero, characters and ending but all the more refreshing for it. There are tones of Shrek throughout in the anti-hero stance and the humour, as well as the talking animals, but it retains a charm of its own. Well worth plucking from the shelves here.

 

The Wolves of Currumpaw by William Grill

wolves of currumpaw

For all the massively regurgitated history that our children devour at school – Henry VIII and his six wives, the first and second world wars, the Romans, there are billions of little historical stories that deserve to be given the insanely wonderful treatment that William Grill affords his books. Grill’s first book was Shackleton’s Journey – not an unknown story in itself – but one that Grill illustrated with distinction and flair.

Grill’s latest book is an all-round immersion into the little known story of 1892 New Mexico and the British naturalist Ernest Thompson Seton who is employed to hunt down a roaming wolf pack led by legendary pack leader, King Lobo.

This is a sumptuous absorption into the Wild West, with a map at the beginning placing the reader, and a wonderfully depicted opening, ‘The Old West’, with a full page illustration of the vista, in tones of red – smudged trees stretching in zigzags to give the perspective of depth and distance, with a mountain range and a red sky background. In the foreground, a small, almost ant-like pack of wolves roam the landscape. And the reader is transported.

There’s a warmth that emanates from the page because of the earthy tones used, but also from the love that has gone into the storytelling.

The story branches off using Grill’s now distinctive style of telling the narrative with both huge sweeping images, and also sets of tiny illustrations, almost like film stills in crayon, at first with sparse text, and then with image after image after image.

Grill’s brilliance comes from the fact that even by looking at one of his postage stamp illustrations, the reader can tell the character of the man they are reading about – we can see how the European settlers treated the indigenous peoples and animals, and the conflicts they faced. This is especially crucial for children who can visually read ideas and sense emotions that they might not be able to put into words: colonialism, survival, warfare, etc.

Small details abound – the train chugging into the distance, weaponry, deals being made.

As the story grows, so does the text, but the illustrations still bear that same attention to detail and attitude – the pack of wolves is illustrated – each wolf different from the last. The people too. Browns and blues are introduced into the colour palate, especially as the story heads to Seton in New York and gives the man’s background.

By the time Seton arrives in Clayton, the reader understands the type of man he is, the landscape he is entering, and the equipment he uses – all spread out neatly and illustrated item by item on the page – reminiscent of course of Shackleton’s Journey. This is different though in that it is clear to a modern reader that Shackleton was a hero, but here the reader is torn between rooting for our protagonist, but also for the wolf. In fact, Grill’s excellence is in making the reader feel empathy for both the hunted and the hunter.

In the end, of course, the book isn’t about violence, but about love. Just looking at Grill’s full page illustration of a sunrise evokes a deep pull at the reader’s inner emotions. The book quotes Seton and explains the inspiration he wields over such ecologists and writers as Sir David Attenborough and Aldo Leopold:

“Ever since Lobo, my sincerest wish has been to impress upon people that each of our native wild creatures is in itself a precious heritage that we have no right to destroy or put beyond the reach of our children” – Ernest Thompson Seton.

He would certainly be proud of this retelling. Grill has clearly researched impeccably, and succeeds in retelling history for a young generation in both highly illustrative detail and highly edited text. Includes also a glossary and wonderful endpapers.

Reading a Grill book is like immersing yourself in an experience. From the beautifully textured cover to the crayon renderings within, which a reader can’t help but rub their fingers over, as if the feelings and sentiments inside could be drawn up into the bloodstream. This is how history comes alive.

With thanks to Flying Eye Books for my copy. To buy your own click here.

Harold’s Hungry Eyes Blog Tour

In literary agent Jonny Geller’s TED talk about what makes a bestselling book, he talks about five key components, one of which is resonance.

Resonance is exactly what it says on the tin – what resonates for you about a story? Of course we’re all wired differently – what resonates for me in a novel won’t be the same as for you. As a reader I bring my own experiences, memories and feelings to a book as I read it.

For children just starting out in the world, what resonates for them? One of my children has had the same weekly piece of homework all year:

‘Look out the window’.

What does a child see when they look out the window? What resonates for them? It will be different for each one, even those looking at the same view. So, to help with this today, and as part of the Harold’s Hungry Eyes blog tour, I have three books that take the world around us, and make different shapes from it – what do you see in the world around you that resonates for you?

Harolds Hungry Eyes 2d

Harold’s Hungry Eyes by Kevin Waldron

This adorable picture book follows a food-obsessed boston terrier called Harold as he searches New York for his missing favourite chair. Harold’s eye view of the city is very much his own. Although he sees a typical mail box, a yellow school bus, a clock on a building and a chained bicycle, to his eyes they are different. The mail box is an oven with roast chicken inside, the school bus a chunk of cheese, the clock a pie and the bicycle wheels two pretzels.

Kevin Waldron cleverly manages to combine an everyman’s depiction of the city as bustling, busy and daunting, with Harold’s viewpoint of seeing food everywhere. Waldron does this physically – denoting the city with black line drawings and colour block, and then collage-style layering the image with photographs of food. It’s effective and different.

Harold isn’t a cute dog, but he has the reader’s sympathy from the outset with his large black eyes making eye contact with the reader from page one, and he grabs the child’s empathy by seeing the traffic lights as ice creams on the title page. His innermost dreams are exposed to the reader from early on – choc ice vehicles, raspberry fire hydrants, and my absolute favourite – toaster buildings.

But New York is also a character here – the setting itself depicted in shadows and lines with its distinctive look and multitude of busy busy people, which combines to project a sense of loss and loneliness common to small beings in big cities.

Harold’s insatiable hunger is the driving force behind the plot and the narrative though, and children will delight in the wafer staircase and croissant couch at the uplifting ending.

I have one copy of Harold’s Hungry Eyes to give away (UK only). See @minervamoan on twitter for the giveaway. And click here to buy.

the cloudspotter

Even if you don’t see food in buildings, you have almost certainly played shapeshifters with clouds. The Cloudspotter by Tom McLaughlin is another tale of loneliness, although again the protagonist isn’t aware of it. Our small boy is a dreamer, seeing stories and emotions hidden with the clouds. When a dog comes to join in the fun, the boy is irritated at the intrusion but before long comes to understand that a cloud shared is happier than a story told to oneself only.

Tom McLaughlin also uses a special type of layering to create his illustrations here – the illusion of the clouds making stories – and the paint really does look like clouds – with a layer of greyed line illustration on top to show how the boy, and then the dog interact within the cloud story.

The clouds morph into everything – from castles in the sky to musical instruments, and even bones. Reminiscent of Oliver Jeffers’ Lost and Found – in which the boy (also in a stripy jumper) doesn’t realise that the animal is after friendship, The Cloudspotter depicts our hero with glasses, and boldly enjoying his solitude, which as Tom Hanks delightfully pointed out last week in Desert Island Discs, isn’t the same as loneliness.

Fabulous for leading children into the world of seeing shapes in the clouds, and using imagination to turn the view out of the window into an adventure. You can buy it here.

footpath flowers

One more, which like Harold’s Hungry Eyes, places the city as more than a setting – perhaps even a character in its own right – is Footpath Flowers by Jon Arno Lawson and Sydney Smith. A girl (in red) whilst all else is in black and white – yes an oft-used device – gathers flowers while her distracted father walks her through the city. Incidences of colour pop up, the fruit at the grocer’s, the yellow cabs, and of course the flowers that the girl collects.

As they wend through the city, she gives out flowers too, and each gift is transformative in some way – showing the power of giving, and of small gestures, and joy in natural things.

Whilst the father is distracted, he lets the child stop and gather flowers, and holds her hand. He is a supportive parent, as seen by his careful smile on the cover.

The book is wordless – the pictures alone – graphic novel style – tell the story. It’s a modern story – the father is pictured on his phone, the people at the bus stop are a diverse mix, there are runners in the park. But what is truly exemplary about this book is the juxtaposition of the facelessness of the city with the stamp of the individual.

Each page can be devoured for its subtle depiction of individuals lives within a city as a whole – what are the people doing sitting in the back of the open truck? What do the birds see from their perch above the road? From different angles, with different elements of colour, this is an intriguing picture book – and one that carries a simple yet effective message.

My favourite moments, those which resonated for me, – the hug between mother and child – and the mother’s stance looking at her children in the garden – this last image fascinating for the fact that the illustrator has purposefully cut the picture so that the reader can’t see the mother’s eyes, nor the child in red as she is walking out the picture. Read it and draw your own conclusions; it certainly presents different viewpoints outside the window. You can buy it here.

Please note this title is called Sidewalk Flowers in the United States.

 

If you like Harold’s Hungry Eyes by Kevin Waldron, then you can download the screen saver here and activity here.

 

 

 

Scholastic Sale

These days, as traditional as Christmas pudding, is the transition from sentimental Christmas adverts to January sales promotions.

I’m delighted that Scholastic approached me for two reasons – firstly in their capacity as a publishing group, as they have produced a great title for reluctant readers, and also because they have started their amazing sale with up to 88% discounts on fabulous children’s books (from a variety of publishers).

create your own alien adventure

Create Your Own Alien Adventure: It’s OK! We’re going to save the planet! By Andrew Judge and Chris Judge is an adventure story in which the reader both fills in the gaps (literally, with a pencil and colouring crayons), and also chooses the twists the story will take by turning to the page of their choice. Building on those classic ‘choose your own adventure’ stories, this title goes further because the reader is invited to draw on the book.

With Daisy, the heroine, the reader tracks an invading alien back to his crashed space ship and adventures with him into space. Except that by doing so, the reader has inadvertently led the alien army to Earth, and now the reader must protect it – with Daisy and some characters (of the reader’s own inventing). Not only is it truly interactive (the reader is also invited to tear certain pages), but it’s a great tool for reluctant readers to conquer a book, read a story, follow instructions, and participate in a story arc.

Chris Judge is an award-winning picture book illustrator (Tin, The Lonely Beast, and most recently The Snow Beast), and is joined by his brother Andrew. The illustrations are simple so that a young reader doesn’t feel intimidated by them.

The language too is simple, but humorous, with plenty of eye-catching typeface changes, enlargements etc, to keep anyone interested, as well as some great dialogue.

I’ve already shown the title to two parents of reluctant readers who were both eager to obtain a copy of their own. Luckily for them, this title, retailing at £5.99, is in the Scholastic January Sale for £2.99, and you can buy it here, and it will be followed in April by a further title in the series, Create Your Own Spy Mission.

If tempted by the TV showings of David Walliams children’s book entertainment, you can buy his new title, Grandpa’s Great Escape, in the sale at £8.99, as well as some Early Reader Horrid Henry’s including Christmas Play at £2.99. Scholastic are also great at selling packs, and this non-fiction one caught my eye – narrative non-fiction so that you learn as you read a story – I Survived pack of five books at £9.99.

What’s more every order over £10 earns 20% back in FREE BOOKS for a school or nursery of your choosing. For this reason, I am directing you to the sale site here, rather than my usual referral site.

A Stepping Stone To Books

When I talk to parents whose children aren’t keen readers, I often mention how important it is to find another way into books – to make reading a habit. One brilliant stepping stone to engage children who aren’t ready for a lengthy book is to turn to a periodical. These are still relevant for keen book readers – many of the keenest readers adore my first featured periodical for its ability to tell a story and wait breathlessly for their Friday installment. The three periodicals featured below are informative, engaging, interactive, and interesting, and also work as an extra treat for the most dedicated book readers.

Phoenix

Phoenix Comic
I’m starting with The Phoenix because it celebrated its 200th edition last Friday. The Phoenix is a weekly comic for children aged about 6-12 years. Rather than just containing comic strips, it also features adventure stories – serialised week on week. In fact you may have seen some of these produced as books, including Corpse Talk by Adam Murphy. This comic strip appears in The Phoenix each week and brings back from the dead a famous character from history, supplying excellent non-fiction snippets, and cringe-worthy jokes (the book was shortlisted for the 2015 Blue Peter Best Book of Facts Award). Evil Emperor Penguin by Laura Ellen Anderson (a prolific children’s book illustrator) also features weekly, and Anderson’s Penguin adventures were also published as a book this October.

As well as the captivating story-telling in the comics, and the humour, and the facts contained within Corpse Talk, parents love that there are no gimmicks – no adverts, no plastic toys.

Without them realising, it gets children reading, teaches them to look for visual clues, provides different styles of writing, explores story arcs and offers a way into storytelling like no other. Many of the reading schemes I work with in schools have comics as part of their new titles now – it’s a good way for children to break down a story and see how a plot unfolds. The vocabulary in The Phoenix is great too – from onomatopoeias of comic genius, to sacrifices, explorers and rebellions related historical strips. As the publisher, David Fickling says “libraries and schools are deliberately stocking our comics because they see them as a link to books, not competition to them.”

The 200th edition has a beautifully illustrated cover by our children’s laureate, Chris Riddell, and a preview for the new strip called John Blake coming 2016 written by Philip Pullman, and illustrated by Fred Fordham. This edition also sees The Phoenix being stocked in WHSmith for the first time.

First news

First News
Another weekly that is fought over by children each week (“I’m reading it first!”) is First News. A weekly national newspaper for children, it features news told in a non-patronising but accessible way. Each news story assumes little prior knowledge on the history of the topic, so gives the story context, and tries to present it in an appealing way with graphics where necessary.

There is general news, home news in snippets encircling a map of Great Britain, world news presented likewise, but with reference numbers for each piece of text corresponding to the appropriate place on the world map (geography has never been so interesting), picture news, science, animals, entertainment and sports news. There are also weekly features including a comic strip, jokes, amazing facts, interviews, book reviews and a book corner, puzzles, and a great section called ‘Your News’ in which children send in their own reports about interesting experiences they have had.

It sounds comprehensive – and it is. It manages to tackle sensitive issues, such as refugees, bullying and the environment well, without resorting to sensationalism or being too simplistic.

The special editions, which are printed as an in-depth look at certain subjects, are also well presented. The Election 2015 edition was particularly well done.

The weekly newspaper does contain adverts, but having seen almost 100 editions, I’ve yet to find anything too objectionable. It’s an excellent source for knowledge about current affairs for children. A print version of the wonderful Newsround from the 1980s.

aquila

Aquila
The ultimate magazine for young non-fiction fans, Aquila is a monthly issue rather than weekly. Aimed at roughly 8 years and over, it features one topic per month and delves into it in a range of fun, interactive and informative ways. Next month is Life on Mars, this month was Invisibility.

The team behind the magazine deal with each subject in an imaginative way. Invisiblity is addressed not only as when you might feel invisible (such as starting a new school) but also what’s invisible in the natural world – because it is camouflaged. The Invisibility edition features an activity to help the reader make an invisibility cloak, a science experiment to make an object invisible, information on static electricity – which of course you can feel but not necessarily see, a double page spread on archaeologists ‘seeing’ what’s invisiible, and the history of priest holes, which are ancient hiding places – the sort that some Catholic priests used for hiding places to escape capture following the Gunpowder Plot.

There are also stories, puzzles and competitions. As with The Phoenix, there are no adverts, just a very full letters page with enthusiastic feedback from readers. It’s for curious children everywhere, and is delivered by post.

 

 

 

Back to Nature

Three very different but equally intriguing books landed on my desk at the end of the summer. For three different age groups, they all demand that their readers sit up and notice what’s out the window. They may be dissimilar in their readership from each other, yet I’m grouping all three because they all share a common trait – they excite the mind about nature through their distinct illustrative styles.

lets go outside

Let’s Go Outside by Katja Spitzer
The smallest title in size, aimed at the smallest child, and designed especially to be held by the smallest hands. Although the publisher claims that this title aims to teach first words, I would add that it is useful as an inspirational tool for developing the eye – for reinforcing a toddler’s passion for ambling on a walk and looking around them, noticing things that an adult passes by with scarcely a glance. The book’s colours harp back to the 1970s with their intense vibrancy of oranges, browns, yellows and greens, and a quick flick shows that each page depicts a fairly simple word accompanied by a picture which illustrates it: flowers, insects, bird, butterfly, fruit and vegetables.

However, closer inspection – as a toddler would demand – gives a much more insightful view of what’s on display. The picture of the tree demonstrates use of pattern; the picture of the neighbour’s cat (an interesting choice – the cat belongs to someone else) shows a cat with attitude – proud and haughty – the illustrator managing this by showing the cat on tiptoes, body and head erect, eyes slightly staring up, whiskers sharp; the depiction of cherries is unexpected too – the girl is clearly eating one, although all that can be seen is the stalk poking out of her mouth. She is wearing cherries over her ears, and the buttons on her top could almost be mistaken for cherries too.

Each picture contains its own world. The positioning of the squirrel on the page following the girl on the swing suggests the same fluid motion – is swinging an exercise in being part of the landscape – soaring or leaping in the air like an animal? There is plenty to name, count and spy in the pages. The last few pages diverge off into showing seasons – a pumpkin follows leaves, which leads to a snowman – the last picture is of the garden in different seasons. You buy it here.

tree

Another book that shows the changing seasons, is Tree by Britta Teckentrup and Patricia Hegarty. This was snatched from my hands by excited children the minute it arrived. The static picture of the tree, with its die cut hole through to a picture of an owl nesting inside, stays throughout almost the entire book, with further die cuts within showing bear cubs playing, squirrels scampering, birds and insects.

However, the change from the original template of the tree is startling on each page – the slow change through the seasons represented by the number of leaves, the shape of the tree, the animals frolicking beneath and the silence of winter, and most particularly the use of different colour palates on each page from the pale frosty greens and blues and greys and whites of winter to the slow snow melting of spring, with the introduction of browns and yellow and purple as the bluebells and crocuses appear.

Britta Teckentrup portrays the subtle changes with an expert use of colour, creating an almost sensual reaction to the page. The clever layering of the die cut reflects the layering of the leaves – the increase in die cuts, with more and more animals, is in tandem with the increase in foliage as the seasons turn to summer, and then the mass of leaves before they fall in autumn. Each page contains an array of detail to spy and talk through – spring contains squirrels and fox cubs as well as many different types of flowers, leaves, insects and birds, and a changing sky, with rain or sun. The blue skies of summer change to the fading yellow light of autumn.

There is a small amount of rhyming text at the bottom of each page to explain what’s happening, with language to reflect the illustrations – the “springtime breeze” reflected in the illustration of movement in the tree – forests “abloom with flowers” reflected in the colourful flowers amassing on the page. And then of course the year begins again… “Owl sees the first new buds appear, And so begins another year…”

A simple concept, expertly executed. Both stylistically beautiful and informative. An autumnal must for every young child. You can purchase it here.

the wonder garden

Lastly The Wonder Garden, illustrated by Kristjana S Williams, written by Jenny Broom, takes illustrated books for children to a new illustrative level, with a gold embossed cover reflecting the sumptuousness of the natural world in all its glory.

Exploring five lush habitats, including the Amazon rainforest, the Chihuahuan desert and the Great Barrier Reef, Williams uses layers of vibrant colours to explore each environment – it almost feels as if one is wearing 3D glasses when reading – there is much layering in the illustrations.

On closer inspection, the illustrations are not hand-drawn and old-fashioned as they first appear, but prepared digitally, which makes sense as some of the images are repeated in the same pose, and cast over one another to simulate the variety and layering of the landscapes. The detail is exquisite, capturing the textures and patterns of different animals and birds well, although of course they are not drawn scientifically accurately, but more as drawings to ‘wonder’ at.

But it is the colours that demand attention – splashes of neon pink and oranges lending the book a magical quality. Unfortunately the text doesn’t stand up to the same scrutiny; for those children who like animal non-fiction there is nothing new here – the creatures chosen are atypical of these books, with atypical facts – a poison dart frog, a hummingbird whose heart beats 100 times a minute, the green turtle, the golden eagle with its speeds of up to 320 km an hour. There is an immediacy to the text that I liked – the author talking to the reader as if you yourself were walking through the landscape, and describing the sounds of the animals, but also including the species’ Latin names. Sadly, there are one or two typos, which I hope are corrected for the next edition.

This is definitely an inspirational piece of non-fiction – a sumptuous looking gift for curious children, which I would recommend for its ability to motivate children to be inquisitive about the world around them and then go on to explore further for more in-depth information. Click here to see the Waterstones link.

 

 

 

 

A New Term, New Knowledge

the school of art

It’s apt that as we go back to school, my first blog of the new term is about a non-fiction book that is laid out in the style of a three term learning process – a school of art. Wide Eyed Publishing have published a unique teaching tool for young readers, which explores basic principles of art in a refreshingly clean, tidy and easy to understand way. The School of Art by Teal Triggs, illustrated by Daniel Frost, isn’t like previous art titles I’ve reviewed in which a child is shown how to draw an object or character line by line. It isn’t presented, as many children’s art books are, almost recipe style, in presenting a craft idea and showing step-by-step how to create it. This is very different. It aims to teach the tools behind the art so that a reader goes away completely equipped with a skillset, and most importantly, an understanding of art. And yet it still remains incredibly child-friendly.

At first glance, the title is rather staid, The School of Art, and the contents page almost academic and rather daunting. The first few pages introduce five imaginary professors, who are going to teach throughout the book, but the bulk of the book is split into three terms of learning – each double page spread, or in some cases individual pages, assigned a different lesson. The contents page is text heavy, as is the introduction. As first impressions go, this reviewer was reluctant to plough through the book.

Yet on closer inspection, perversely the detail serves the purpose of making the lessons simpler, like a Chagall painting that tells a narrative, the details of the individual sections pull together to give a wonderfully rich overarching story. The book aims to teach the principles of art, and does so deftly, clearly and without patronising. If there was ever an advert for the kind of teacher one should have, this is it. Far from ploughing through it, I was motivated throughout reading it and have learnt more about art from this book than any other – in a refreshingly simple way.

The five professors represent the five tenets of art – ideas, form, senses, making, and the planet or environment. They are introduced in a particularly child-friendly way, exploring their appearance, their studios, and their character traits. For example, the Professor of Form is illustrated intelligently by Daniel Frost as being composed almost of shapes – a triangular beard, rectangular legs, and with an unmistakeable symmetry. The Professor of Senses is partial to ice creams in pointy sugary cones and the Professor of the Planet’s studio is a greenhouse.

The lessons are strikingly simple and yet impart great knowledge, building from complete basics up through to technical applications, but always adding in activities, which are easy to do, and demonstrate the lessons magnificently. Although this is not a history of artists, names of famous artists are dropped in when their work helps to demonstrate a lesson – which all helps to build a rounded knowledge.

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For example, one of my favourite sections in term one is about colour. The lessons stem from the colour wheel to making colours lighter and darker, to how they work in harmony, to contrast, and then fascinating lessons on seeing colours that aren’t there, when the same colour looks different, and when different colours look the same. Lesson 14 on seeing colours that aren’t there gives a stunningly simply activity – which works magnificently – creating an illusion called an ‘after-image’ by painting a circle with three wedges, red, green and blue – that meet in the middle. The reader is asked to take a long look at the centre, and then look to a white sheet of paper. Which colours do you then see?

All the activities that I tried were simple and worked, proving their lesson. The book instructs how art encompasses maths and science, and talks about using art to be useful as well as aesthetic. The illustrations are both informative and witty. The text is far from dry – it is light and entertaining. There’s a glossary of terms at the back, and space to add the reader’s artwork to the final exhibition. Once I started this book, it was utterly compelling.

Recommended for all children interested in art from age nine upwards, as well as to all teachers, and educators as a brilliant tool for demonstrating basic art principles in the classroom. The author and illustrator have dedicated the book to all art and design students everywhere. I would say for those students, it is essential reading, but the author has drawn attention to the fact that the book aims to show the ways in which art can make a difference in people’s lives – adding that it doesn’t matter what age you are for that to be relevant. I would agree – I will be loath to relinquish this book – it’s a surprising masterpiece.

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It is worth noting that the author is a Professor at the Royal College of Art. I was kindly provided a copy of this book for review from the publishers as part of a mumsnet review panel. To buy a copy of this book from Waterstones, please click here.