imagination

Other Worlds: A Guest Blog by Guy Jones

Guy Jones

I’m delighted to host Guy Jones on the site today, talking about his ‘other worlds’ influences. Guy has spent much time writing for the theatre, including the West End musical Never Forget, but now he has turned his talents to children’s books, and his debut novel, The Ice Garden is a wonderful adventure. You can read my ‘book of the week’ review here. Guy talks below about why, despite enjoying gritty realism, sometimes we like to leap into ‘another world’. 

It started with Tolkein. My dad reading a little of The Lord of The Rings to me at bed each night. Spooling out, bit by bit, a reality that seemed as rich and complex as my own, but with the added benefit of dwarves and elves and wizards. But it wasn’t just the narrative itself that carried me along, it was the sense of there being an entire world – history, language, culture – of which the tale I was hearing was just a fragment. If we went for a walk I would imagine armies of orcs pouring down the hillside or hobbits padding through the trees. It wasn’t only a story, it was fuel poured onto my own imagination.

And then so many more… The grimy, serious fantasy of Earthsea, the raging creativity of Ray Bradbury, the beautiful Dark is Rising series, and the near-perfection of Discworld. And through all that, slowly grasping a new pleasure – stories where the uncanny and the magical rub up against the real world until it’s not clear where one starts and the other ends. It’s why I’m a sucker for the ghost stories of MR James and Susan Hill. It’s why Neil Gaiman is the writer I most look forward to reading. It’s why discovering The Book of Lost Things by John Connolly has been one of my highlights of the year so far. It’s why I wrote a book as deliberately ambiguous and strange as The Ice Garden.

Of course, some of this is just personal preference. I can ‘do’ gritty realism. I enjoy gritty realism! But I don’t enjoy it as much as something that has a little flavour of the other, or what Robert Aickman called his ‘strange stories’. But, also, I think there’s something more to it than that.

ice gardenWriting fiction is an act of imagination. But reading fiction is too. A series of marks on a page translate inside the reader’s head into something completely different; something replete with meaning and emotion that stimulates every sense. (If you don’t believe me then read Stephen King’s description of Stan Uris’s first encounter with IT. You can feel the atmosphere he evokes.) And nowhere is the imaginative leap required of a reader greater than when they’re plunged into an entirely different world.

Put simply, I believe these strange stories build the muscle of imagination. And the importance of that at a young age can’t be overstated. Not many jobs require you to invent a fictional history for the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros, but there are very few that don’t require some kind lateral thinking or problem solving. Some kind of imagination, you see. And it’s not only key in a practical sense – I believe all this also only adds to the richness of a child’s inner life.

I understand it’s not for everyone. Some like stories set in the here and now, that deal with the world as it is. Some people hate Tolkein! And if your tastes run that way then I appreciate why. But remember… just because a book is set in another world, doesn’t mean it isn’t true.

With thanks to Guy Jones. THE ICE GARDEN by Guy Jones out now in paperback (£6.99, Chicken House). Read MinervaReads review of The Ice Garden here, and purchase a copy here. You can follow Guy Jones on twitter @GuyJones80 and find out more at www.chickenhousebooks.com

The Eye of the North by Sinead O’Hart

Eye of the NorthA timeless, icy, steampunk adventure, this is a really interesting and intriguing debut novel.

Arresting from the first sentence, O’Hart tells the story of Emmeline, a girl constantly on her guard, taking ‘always be prepared’ to the next level. So when she is kidnapped, and stolen away on a ship to the far north to be used as a bargaining chip to get her scientist parents to awaken a giant mysterious creature (the Kraken) buried deep beneath the ice, she must use her wits and her anxiety to whittle herself free.

The book is dense, and surprisingly gripping, and positively teems with ideas. Emmeline meets a stowaway on her first sea voyage, a nippy little figure named Thing, as well as an organisation trying to prevent the evil kidnapper from taking further control of the world – this organisation is named The Order of the White Flower (with headquarters in Paris). With tentative allusions to underground opposition groups in World War Two, such as The White Rose, the complexity of O’Hart’s plot begins to show itself here.

The reader learns that this underground organisation has many members who have been working against Dr Bauer (the kidnapper) for a long time, but little detail is given, although the group sound intriguing and each member fascinating; O’Hart keeps the reader completely in the dark (to the end). One member has built an intensely complex flying machine, which Thing endeavours to fly to rescue Emmeline. As with everything within this detailed and wondrous book, my issue is that the contraption sounds so terrific, so fantastical, that it is difficult to envisage in one’s mind’s eye. The same happens numerous times – with the denouement, in which Dr Bauer constructs an engineering contraption to extract the Kraken from beneath the ice, using mirrors  – the idea is so highfalutin, that it is difficult for the reader to picture.

As Emmeline moves through her adventure, so O’Hart throws more and more at the reader. We learn that the world has been submerged in much water (presumably the effects of global warming), and so Paris is much nearer the sea than it is in the real world. As with the characters of The Order of the White Flower, this idea isn’t completely developed though, which is a pity.

At every stage in the adventure, from Emmeline meeting an almost mythological horse, (which sounds as if inspired by the old Guinness advert in which the horses morph into waves – powerful like the gods), to Emmeline meeting the Northwitch, who splinters into ice shards and then re-forms with a spellbindingly cold evil chill, the inventiveness is powerful and spellbinding, and O’Hart smashes the imagery out of the park. The only issue is that the images are so extreme that the fantastical is hard to pin down in one’s imagination.

There are some wonderful touches – the tribal people living on the ice, with their sledges and their fear of outsiders, although again, this is underdeveloped as a concept, which is a shame.

The Eye of the North is a sensational story, but this book alone could probably have been developed into about three volumes – so that each part could be extrapolated more.

It touches on humans’ environmental impact on the world, scientific explorations and contraptions, evil beneath the ice, mythical horses, an evil ice queen, good versus evil organisations, greed and power, as well as anxiety and bravery.

It fits beautifully into the zeitgeist of the moment, with a wintry landscape, a future blighted by our environmental impact on the world, and a protagonist with parent scientists who have high stakes in the action. Blending a timelessness with technology and environment, and featuring children who perpetuate their scientist parents’ ideas by attempting to prevent harmful agents, but taking the best part of the science and seeing it through.

The two children are intensely likeable. They are feisty and free-thinkers. Emmeline’s character is strong at the beginning; she is determined, holds onto her comforts, remains quick-thinking and suspicious, but I wanted even more character development from her. Likewise with Thing, who has issues with his haunting past, yet has a strong determination to hold onto a person with whom he’s made a connection. Because their characters ring so true, the reader wants to stay with them.

This is a storming adventure story for the age group, ambitious and hugely entertaining, and there’s no denying this is a powerful book. I just think it could have been about three. You can buy it here.

The Stone Bird by Jenny McCartney and Patrick Benson

The Stone Bird by Jenny McCartneyOne of the most beautiful picture books I’ve read this year, this story about the power of imagination marries the wondrous lyricism of both illustration and text so that the reader becomes completely immersed in the narrative, the emotion and the possibility of the story.

Eliza picks up a stone from the beach. But this is no ordinary stone. She is determined in her knowledge that it is an egg, and is not surprised to find that the stone cracks and a stone bird appears. An alive stone bird.

This simplicity is part of the beauty of this book, which seeks to explore a child’s resolve in her imagination, a steely belief that magic can happen. The story explores patience – in Eliza’s ongoing steadfastness to her ‘bird’, all through the change of seasons, her mum’s doubts and even slight mockery:

Her mother smiled, “It’s too hard to be a bird.”

“Well then,” said Eliza, “it’s a hard bird.”

And yet also, by the end, the story explores the ability to let go.

The narrative clearly takes the perspective of Eliza, but what brings Eliza to life for the reader, in the same way that the stone lives for Eliza, is not only Eliza’s speech, which is particular to her and encompasses her character, but also the expressiveness of her personality through her relationship to her friends, her school, her playing.

The illustrations are exquisite. The shifting perspective of the illustrator – seeing Eliza sometimes from above, sometimes up close, sometimes from the back – allows the reader an intimacy with the protagonist. We see how strands of hair pull across Eliza’s face, how she holds her pencil, how she lets her sandals slip from her feet, her scuffing through autumn leaves, and the crouch position on her haunches as she scoops the pebble from the sand.

Because Eliza experiences such joy and pain with her stone bird, such frustration and satisfaction at different times, the reader is constantly aware of the nuances in her emotional state through her behaviour. The delight at first discovery, the irritation and sadness at her mother’s skepticism, the wonder as the bird emerges, even the concentration as she colours in a drawing. There is so much attention to detail and close up that readers will feel as if they know, or indeed, have become Eliza.

Patrick Benson is the illustrator of Owl Babies, and once again he has achieved a picture book that feels fresh and original, and yet appears classic at the same time. Designed with the narrative at the heart, there are superb touches, such as the white space surrounding Eliza at her most miserable, and the author’s adept understanding of the simple pleasures of childhood:

“Not even the idea of her birthday made her smile.”

And also the ability of the author/illustrator to understand when to flood the page with illustration, such as the double page magic of the Christmas spread. It feels intimate, homely and yet imbued with a hint of wistfulness too.

A compelling, lyrical, superbly illustrated picture book that matches the power of imagination with the power of books. You can buy it here.

You Choose in Space

Whenever I sneak a look at the top ten most borrowed books in the school library, there’s one book that always features. You Choose by Pippa Goodhart, illustrated by Nick Sharratt is that dream of a book: children can read it over and over again, huddled around its pages with their friends, changing the narrative each time, reinventing the story in multiple ways, daydreaming their future. After a while, there is even a comforting familiarity about the illustrations. Just this week, some Year 3 pupils were going through the book making choices based on how much money their character had! So, it was with open arms that I embraced the new title, You Choose in Space. Whether it’s which alien you would befriend, what mode of transport you would use, or which freaky food you’d eat for your space snacks, the book has everything for a fun-filled interactive space adventure. Just as the original, the pages are packed with vibrant, colourful, happy images, giving full boost to any child’s imagination. It’s amazing to think that the original premise was rejected by publishers – for many children, You Choose has been their introduction to books. So, to turn the world on its head, I didn’t ask readers what they would choose in space, I asked Pippa and Nick. Here, are their choices for You Choose in Space:

 

 

Pippa:

Nick and I are actually pictured in the space craft coming in to land on Planet Pick-and-Mix.  Search carefully, and you’ll spot us!

If I had all those choices to choose from when we came down to land, I think I’d mostly go for blue things.  Why?  Because blue is my favourite colour.  I’d pick the blue bobbed hair to wear.

Nick: I’d choose the blue and orange hair and the Saturn top.

Pippa: A blue iced donut to eat.

Nick: It has to be the rainbow jelly for me.

Pippa: I’d very much like to meet the smiley blue alien with knobs on her head who rides a scooter and makes blue sandcastles from soft blue sand. I think she would make a fun friend.

Nick: I think the tall alien with the spike on the top of his head looks like he’d be nice and friendly.

Pippa: I’d also like to try and spy a duckafly from all the strange animal things as I fly by in one of those big baskets with wings.

Nick: My favourite is the horse bird.

Pippa: I’d very much like to ride on a pink-powered orange space hopper.  Why?  Because space hoppers were a new toy here on Earth when I was about ten, and I got one for my birthday, and I hopped and hopped on it again and again.  If it had that added pink zoom power I could hop it higher into the sky, and maybe even fly into space and explore all those other planets.

Nick: I had a space hopper too! But I’m going for the rollercopter.

With huge thanks to Pippa and Nick for taking time out of their busy writing and illustrating schedules to read their book with me. What would you choose? Go into space and make your own choices 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.

Story

What do I mean when I say I’m a writer? Aren’t we all writers? Whether it’s composing a ‘to do’ list, thumbing a text, emailing a sick note, we all do a bit of writing in an average day. My writing tends to be a little more creative; as well as reviewing or writing opinion, I also spend a vast amount of my time ‘making stuff up’.

So, in a day, I’m likely to do various types of writing. Writing to communicate direct information with people, writing for publications, and lastly for an artistic purpose – which also has a personal aspect – it’s a way of trying to make sense of the world.

I’m lucky in my artistic pursuit. I don’t (at the moment) have a time or topic constraint, and my first draft can literally be whatever splurge I like. Then I can revise it with a view to shaping and developing my thoughts, and adding knowledge. At the same time I’m going to hone my language, perfecting my ability to express myself.

My children, however, are not so lucky. The majority of their writing happens in school, and at the moment they are constrained by the topic they are being taught, the grammar system they have to learn or put into their work, and time. More often than not, the stimulus for writing is external rather than internal – their piece of writing is a response to another piece of writing or a film clip.

In essence, there is little freedom in their writing. There is little opportunity to empty their heads, to write about what interests them individually. And most of those children do not want to go home and write. Some do – and all are able – but most will not write for pleasure. They are far more likely to read for pleasure – writing is seen as work, associated with school – even more so than reading.

In an ideal world, there would be time in school for both reading for pleasure – quiet reading time to read a book of their choice – and time for writing – to write something of their choice.

Of course with ultimate freedom, comes some panic. Stick me in front of a blank screen and I will succumb to ‘writer’s block’. The same with children. So a walk in the park, a listen to the birds, might do the trick. If you’re stuck inside though, a package from ‘Story’ might help.

Story is a new company that sent me something called a ‘Walk-in Book’. It’s not as fleshed out as a Choose Your Own Adventure Story, and in actual fact doesn’t look anything like a book. It comes in a bag, and contains inspiration for characters, settings, and quests.

It’s like the stimulus mentioned above, except far less restrictive. It’s a walk in the park in a bag. In fact, my young testers and I found the map far more helpful than the plot pointers. Printed out on what looks like square maths paper, the map winds and weaves round leaves, buildings and crude drawings of animals and gives the most delightful nameplaces within which to set your story. We loved ‘Whispering Walk’, Red Rabbit Run’, and ‘Gushing Gully’, and found that picking out a route around the town was a good way to build a plot from scratch.

The story cards were a little pedestrian in their themes, but we did notice that what they had in common was that they asked questions, so we did that to form our story too. What if this happens, why would our character behave this way, who is doing what, and of course where does that happen? The cards are separated into ‘beginning’ cards for those who find it hard to start, and ‘quest’ cards for those who need a little help on the way. A doll and mask are provided for character beginnings.

I think the doll may be intended to look fairly unisex, but we attributed a girl’s name for it, and couldn’t quite see it as a boy.

The package did make us think quite hard about writing our own story though, and I can imagine that it would work well in group environments – discussion pointers for children to then go off and write their own story. I intend to use it in school, and think it will go down well, particularly for those children who just don’t know where to start.

For me though, I find the best stories hit me when I’m not looking for them. I’ve given my own children blank pieces of paper and told them to write from scratch – just to splurge from their own heads. And inside, they found treasure troves.

It must be all that reading they do!

Story can be found online at https://www.wearestory.co.uk/

 

 

The Right To Fail

So recently, I was shown a TED talk all about how we (society) are letting down our girls by pressing on them the idea that they need to be perfect. We are enabling them to be scared of failure. We are not pushing our girls to take risks, to be brave. And we should be.

Then, two very different children’s books arrived on my desk, and yet they have something in common. They want children to be bold, to be brave, to experiment, to risk failure.

If Found Please Return to Elise Gravel by Elise Gravel
This amusing sketchbook shows the reader how to be an illustrator. In fact, Elise prefaces her book like this:

“I give myself the right to fail, to mess up, to create ugly drawings. I’m kind to myself.”

Pages and pages of full colour doodles and inspiration follow, as well as small snippets of stories, to provoke the reader’s imagination. There are some step-by-step guides, such as how to draw a hedgehog, but with a bit of perseverance, and a recognition that failure is an option, most of the illustrations are fairly easy to copy without a broken down guide.

But as well as recognisable hedgehogs, Elise also stimulates the imagination with her made-up creatures, from ‘floofs’ to the perfume-footed ‘woompus’. It’s a great example of how to start a character description, with some illustrations leading into textual explanations such as the ‘woompus’ being a “close cousin to the squirrel…he communicates with a little sharp cry that sounds like an angry baby.”

Each illustration is drawn and coloured with vibrant felt markers – so any child can copy, or take it as a starting gun for their own design. The idea is to stop the reader or young artist from worrying about whether what they’ve drawn is good or bad – it’s all about practising and drawing anything.

The joy of this book is that it looks and works like a journal – an organic entity, which aims to explore, humour, and tease the reader into keeping their own doodle pad – to experiment without risk of judgement, ridicule or failure. There are no blank pages within though – you have to buy your own blank sketcher for that.

With an attached elastic bookmark to keep place, this is a feel-good addition to any young artist’s stationery and book collection. Buy it here.

Rosie Revere’s Big Project Book for Bold Engineers by Andrea Beaty, illustrations by David Roberts
No child I know has failed to love Andrea Beaty’s cool STEM picture books: Rosie Revere Engineer, Iggy Peck Architect and Ada Twist Scientist – which manage to spin a cunning rhyme, promote women and diversity within science subjects, and tell a good story at the same time. This spin-off title takes the reader even further by offering interaction.

The activity book begins with a story – the background to Rosie Revere and the influences in her life. Most important is her Great Great Aunt Rose, who explains that success comes after a series of failures:

“Your brilliant first flop was a raging success.”

“Failing is just part of learning and the only true failure can come if you quit.”

The book then lists some treasure that the reader might want to collect over time to use in their own inventions, including nuts and bolts, pliers and yarn, and all sorts of bits from recycling or thrift markets.

As well as a myriad of activities throughout the book, such as directions on how to make a catapult, and making your own marble run, the book also explains that part of being an engineer is improving existing designs and models – challenging the reader to improve a bicycle for example, and also looking at world problems that need solving, such as lack of water.

The activities are interspersed with knowledge: information about real life engineers and scientists, the different types of engineering, as well as definitions of different simple machines.

There is plenty of space for creativity: the book poses questions, showcases inspirational people, promotes brainstorming etc. Being an engineer also involves using your imagination. And there’s a section on teamwork too.

The book is a great way to develop a child’s problem-solving skills, but most importantly it empowers a child to fail on their way to success. This is a brilliant book. You can buy it here.

 

 

Draw and Discover with Yasmeen Ismail

Mark making has long been an important part of early years education. As well as developing those all-important motor skills, (which strengthen the muscles in the hands to help children to write for significant periods of time when they are older), making drawings, scribbles and illustrations helps a child to explore their imagination. It develops hand-eye coordination, and also helps a child’s cognitive thinking – learning about the world, planning and experimenting. Confidence in drawing can lead to confidence in mathematical thinking too.

How often do we, even as adults, picture things visually? And for caregivers, marks can make a child’s thinking visible before the child can write.

So the new range of Draw and Discover books by Yasmeen Ismail are particularly appealing. The books help children to identify word meanings and express themselves. Each book is led by a different character – Rabbit, Duck and Bear – as they explore different concepts: big, small, empty, full, push, pull, inside outside, and also of course Happy, Sad, Feeling Glad, which provides space and ideas for children to learn about, give name to, and draw out their emotions.

I’m delighted to have a downloadable pdf for you today, from Happy, Sad, Feeling Glad so that you can have a taster of this marvellous new activity book. Just click here: Yasmeen Ismail Happy Sad Feeling Glad

With thanks to Yasmeen Ismail, pictured below with her real live cat! (thanks to Olivia Hemingway for the photo too).

Yasmeen Ismail in her Studio on 28.2.17

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.

Use Your Imagination

story-path

We read and read and read in library club. Sometimes the children read to themselves, and I always read a story to them. But what we like to do most is guess what’s coming next in the story – and to do this we have to use our imaginations. Sometimes our guesses are wildly inaccurate, and sometimes they’re correct. But one book for which there is no correct answer, is Storypath by Madalena Matoso and Kate Baker.

Reminiscent of You Choose, or Just Imagine by Pippa Goodhart and Nick Sharratt, Storypath guides the reader to make their own choices about the story they want to read.

Set out in bold illustrations with a vibrant colour palate, the reader chooses their first character from princess, vampire cat, five-legged octopus, space monkey or leopard, and is launched onto the story path. On each page there are things to choose, such as extra characters, settings, gifts, and further questions about the choices made, such as the noise the transport might make and its speed. Wrapped into the story are jokes and humour, such as funny hats and walking elephant teapots, but in essence, it’s still up to the reader to decide how funny they want their story to be. Suffice to say, my library club were rolling on the floor once they had chosen their space robot and his magical banana pencil case.

The book can assist in teaching basic sequences and scaffolding of stories – choosing characters, taking them along a path, meeting another character, facing a problem and resolving it, eventually going back home. It’s up the reader to add in the nuances of how the character might develop from their experiences, but for the youngest reader, this is a fun playtime with storybook princesses, monsters, vampire cats and aliens. The joy, of course, is that each reading is completely different. Reading this aloud to a group of children means that each chooses different twists and turns, and there can be much discussion about the choices they’ve made.

A joy for teachers, and much fun for parents and children, this is a stunning new interactive storybook. You can buy it here.

child-of-books

Oliver Jeffers and Sam Winston have come at the idea of imagination in a different way in their new collaboration, using the inspiration of real classic children’s stories to simulate a new story in which the characters ride on the waves of the canon behind them.

A Child of Books tells the simple story of a girl leading a boy on an adventure, up a mountain, through a sea-filled cave and a wood, to escape a monster via a castle, up into space and home again. But each landscape is created by a sea of words. The mountain is illustrated purely by the lines of text from Peter Pan and Wendy, the cave by a mass of words jumbled together from Treasure Island, the trees in the wood are ingeniously portrayed as books standing tall, the monster a mess of words from, yes, Frankenstein. The last pages burst into colour as the girl explains that the world is made from stories, and here there are actual colour illustrations of items, such as a pink cat, a pirate ship, Red Riding Hood, a genie’s lamp, a black horse, a heart, an apple, a kite, and so on.

This is a homage to children’s literature. An attempt to show that each person is constituted in part from the stories or books they consumed as a child.

The boy and girl featured in the story are illustrated as ‘every child’, although the girl, in blue, is slightly ethereal, or ghostlike. It’s certainly a ‘gift’ purchase – the cover is gold-foiled, the overall appearance, that of a piece of treasure rather than the kind of picture book you’d see a toddler gnawing on. In fact, for older readers the artists have posed many questions – does the reader agree that our minds are constituted from stories, what does that mean and how does that affect what we read? What differences are there between those who have read from the canon and those who haven’t? And why have the artists chosen those particular colour images? This is a layered book of depth in meaning and thought, and so appealing to older readers, as well as to adults who like their nostalgic literature. This is a book that makes a large claim on the imagination, an aspirational tome. Buy it here.

are-we-there

In our urban world, one of the best places to use your imagination as a child, is whilst sitting in the backseat of the car. Dan Santat capitalises on this in his latest book, Are We There Yet? With a general concern that children aren’t being allowed to get ‘bored’ enough in today’s overstimulated society, car journeys without ipads are a perfect opportunity to let the mind wander, and Santat uses this oft repeated refrain to frame his picture book.

On a long journey to Grandma’s house for her birthday, a little boy gets bored. Santat even spells this out in the text accompanying the pictures, but then suggests the brain is almost a separate entity, and takes it (quite literally) on a whirl, by turning the pages upside down, and going backwards. The landscape falls back into history too, past the Wild West, a pirate ship, jousting knights, and even Ancient Egypt – the parents transported too (their incredulous expressions moving with the times).

Before long the book turns into a comic strip, and the images mesh together, the pages righting themselves, as Santat plays with the idea of how we experience time, (fast or slow) and moving forward into the distant future.

By the end, the brain’s exhausted from its travels, but the boy sprightly runs into his grandmother’s arms.

There’s much fun to be had with the time play, but also with the illustrations of the people within, from the parents in the car to the family gathering at grandma- as well as the gift given to her for her birthday.

There are many nice touches, from the speech bubbles of the characters to the second person narrative that pulls the reader into the story. But for me, it was the colour palate and illustrations that dominate – the car driving into a jousting ring, lighting it up with headlights, and the contrast of modernity and history. The dreamlike colour palate, the comic strip elements. If you can’t wait, buy it now in hardback, otherwise it’s out in the UK in paperback next spring. Let your imagination soar here.

Please note that the review of Are We There Yet? was based on a proof copy of the book, in which the text and illustrations may not have been final.