magic

Flying Females and Clusters of Cats

Mary Poppins blew in with her umbrella on a very strong wind, and these two new books for children breezed through the letterbox earlier this year.

miss petitfour

The Adventures of Miss Petitfour by Anne Michaels, with illustrations by Emma Block

This is Anne Michael’s first foray into children’s books, although she won accolades galore for Fugitive Pieces, amongst other writing. And what a book! The Adventures of Miss Petitfour is split into five separate stories about the main character, an eccentric lady who lives alone, except for her 16 cats, to which there is an illustrated guide at the beginning so that the reader can distinguish between them. Miss Petitfour also has the ability to fly when the wind takes her – merely by shaping a tablecloth into a type of hot air balloon and going where the breeze dictates.

Anne Michaels has created a world of jumble sales, grand village picnics, stamp collections and the Festival of Festooning.

But it’s the use of language that is so unique and exciting. From her orange and italicized highlighted vocabulary, explaining long and difficult but thrilling new words, such as ‘debonair’ and ‘gesticulating’; to encouraging the reader to count Michael’s authorly ‘digressions’ from the main story – the word digression also highlighted in orange – to the careful construction of each story, the use of the words ‘the end’ at the end of every story in a different context:

“…she placed especially lengthy chocolate eclairs crammed with whipping cream, which they gobbled up with great cat smiles from the beginning to THE END.”

and the simple poetic lyricism of each phrase, from “sixteen cat acrobats on a thrilling coat hanger trapeze” to the stories Miss Petitfour tells her cats:

“…stories full of rolling waves and motorcades, damp caves and last-minute saves, musketeers and mountaineers.”

It seems effortless, although of course it isn’t – it is highly thought out, and of the highest quality – and poetic in its lyricism. As a reader, you savour the words in your mouth the way you would savour the delectable treats she describes:

“currant toast squishy with butter, caramel-marshmallow squares, strawberry boats oozing custard, chocolate eclairs that exploded with cream when the cats bit into them with their little white teeth…”

She explains the construction of her stories as she writes – from ‘then one day’s’ to ‘meanwhiles’ without any condescension, as well as including the most luscious descriptions from clothes and fabrics “bolts of rustling stiff crepe paper and spools of silent velvet ribbon; there was the swish of tinsel and the jittering of plastic beads”, to the line of cats dangling in the wind, to the colour of marmalade. And Michaels does all this as well as writing interesting plots with drive, so there is never a dull moment.

The accompanying full-colour illustrations by Emma Block are sophisticated, humorous and almost as eccentric as Miss Petitfour herself – with massively differentiated cats, ear muffs, dancing, piano playing, and also simple tea. They are sharp and well matched to the text.

This is a meticulously crafted book – refined and delightful. For 7-12 years, and beyond. Buy a copy here.

harper scarlet

Harper and the Scarlet Umbrella by Cerrie Burnell, illustrated by Laura Ellen Anderson

With its irresistibly shiny cover, this tale does indeed sparkle from beginning to end. For newly independent readers, (the text is much larger, and the story shorter, than the title above) it tells the tale of Harper, a small girl who lives in the City of Clouds in a tall apartment block. Her friends come from the different flats within the building, each child having a defined personality from the start. But Harper’s best friend is her cat Midnight. When Midnight goes missing, along with all the other cats from the City of Clouds, Harper must harness her scarlet umbrella (which enables her to fly) and track down the lost cats.

Laura Ellen Anderson’s illustrations made this book for me. From the endearing portrayal of Harper on the cover with the cat perching on her head to the most incredible full page illustration of the cat orchestra inside, the artworks, despite being all in black and white, made me want to savour the book for longer. Small details abound in each illustration, from the smattering of freckles across Harper’s face to the cat licking its paws in the middle of an orchestral warm-up, to the view from the rooftops down to the trail of cats below. Each chapter starts with an illustration of Midnight in a different pose, and the book ends with her curled up comfortably asleep on the last page.

The writing is intensely lyrical, mirroring the themes of the story, which are music, adventure, care for others, all set in an imaginary world where there are different types of rain, “Summer Dew” and “Sea Mist” being just two, so that everyone owns an umbrella. The world also contains a plethora of musical instruments. Time and attention is lavished on children by grownups who really care, and the story is populated by overly exaggerated characters brimming with arty skills – they can dance, or write, or play music with incredible aptitude. It makes for magical reading, each sentence carefully honed with an abundance of adjectives and similes.

It is short and reads as sweetly as the story within, although for older children the language may seem a little cloying. For first readers, the magic of language will spring off the page, and I can happily see children revisiting the story for comfort, and definitely for those stunning illustrations. For 6+ years. You can buy a copy here.

Unexpected Delights: Picture Books With a Difference

the zoomers handbook

The Zoomers’ Handbook by Ana de Moraes, illustrated by Thiago de Moraes
A handbook not for zookeepers, nor for farmers, but for Zoomers – people who look after somewhat strange creatures. For example, the shicken, a creature who lays delicious eggs, but whose mouth rather resembles a shark, or the girafooster who wakes extra early and can spot the sun as soon as it begins to rise because of the girafooster’s height.

Each page in this extraordinary book features a different ‘creature’, and explains something about it. The endpapers of the book are field notes, so that the reader can identify the creatures’ feathers, poo, footprints etc.

The production of the book is not cheap – the thick paper makes it feel like a comprehensive guide rather than just a picture book, and the illustrations are hilarious in their ‘seriousness’ – no silly bright colours, but muted taupe, blues, beige, greys and yellows to fake authenticity.

A clever little picture book that inspires creative thinking, pushes the imagination, and is wonderfully playful in its presentation. As I said, something a bit different. You can purchase it here.

super happy magic forest

Super Happy Magic Forest by Matty Long
Swinging completely in the opposite direction with its colour palate – dark glasses potentially needed – is Super Happy Magic Forest. Even from the title, the (adult) reader can sense that this is a children’s book on the curb of Teletubbies and Magic Roundabout territory – definitely for children, yet with a whiff of tongue-in-cheek adult mind-bending too.

The magic crystals of life keep the forest super, happy and magic. (Bear with me). When they are stolen, five creatures from the forest including a puddle-disliking gnome, a faun and a frolicking unicorn, undertake a dangerous journey to Goblin Tower to retrieve them, passing on their way an army of dangerous penguins, a super creepy haunted forest and dungeons reminiscent of a retro computer game.

The enemy isn’t quite as anticipated though, and through several puns and overwhelmingly bonkers scenes, the crystals are finally replaced, and much frolicking can be done.

Quite the most mind-altering picturebook I’ve seen in a while, find it just for the pessimistic rabbit, or the butterfly’s prolonged death scene. Simply hilarious – I read it on the sofa with wine without the kids. Buy it here.

princess and the pony

The Princess and the Pony by Kate Beaton
Sophisticated readers adore progressive modern princesses, and that’s exactly what Kate Beaton has depicted here. Pinecone is no ordinary princess, she’s a warrior princess. The only problem is that she keeps receiving cosy sweaters as presents, and she doesn’t think that’s very warriorish. For her birthday she asks specifically for a fine warrior horse, but her parents give her a cute small farting pony. However, the pony turns out to be something of an asset, and Pinecone works out what to do with all those cosy sweaters.

The story above may not sound revolutionary – but taken with the illustrations, it’s phenomenally unique and fantastic. Beaton’s extraordinary style conveys the strength of warriors, doting parents, a pony who is positively the opposite of warrior, and a young girl’s initial despair and final triumph.

The scene with the Viking warrior battle is startling – quite exceptional in  a picture book – with masks, hot dogs, a cannon, tortoise man, Viking hats, tennis rackets, disguises – everything has gone into this illustration. It’s a sight to behold.

Very different, very funny, and yet with enormous heart. Recommended for all warrior princesses (and their princes). You can purchase it here.

 

Fairy Tales

“If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.” Albert Einstein.

Ah, fairy tales. How things always come back to these – think of any book you’ve read recently as an adult – did it have elements of fairy tale in it? Boy Snow Bird by Helen Oyeyemi twists the story of Snow White, Angela Carter is famous for her gory reimagining in The Bloody Chamber, or how about the parallels between Bluebeard and Gone Girl? Evil stepmothers in dysfunctional families, dangers awaiting women in the deep dark wood, conniving witches, brainless giants…

So why do we tell them to children? And why do we keep telling them?

“Fairy tales do not tell children that dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed.” G K Chesterton.

We use fairy tales for so many different reasons – for a common cultural heritage – even a global cultural heritage as we find many fairy stories twisted and morphed in different versions throughout the world. Mainly, fairy tales teach children to overcome fears. They explain that although bad things can happen to good people, it is how one deals with the bad stuff that matters.

There is a great deal of death and violence in fairy stories – the wolf’s burnt bottom in the Three Little Pigs, Sleeping Beauty pricking her finger and lying in a coma – and yet the point of it is to teach children to surmount that adversity. Hansel and Gretel combat the witch using their cunning and wit – they push her into the oven.

Fairy stories teach children to make the correct decisions – if Red Riding Hood hadn’t strayed from the path as her mother had warned, she wouldn’t have come across the wolf – if the little pigs had built their houses more strongly, the wolf wouldn’t have puffed them down. If Goldilocks wasn’t set on stealing, then maybe she wouldn’t have been confronted by three bears.

Moreover, fairy stories teach critical thinking. Are the characters making the right decisions? Are they being morally upstanding? There is often as much goodness as there is evil, either from unexpected sources (a kind woodcutter) or from unexpected resources inside ourselves – inner strength, intelligence, kindness.

The characters are often two dimensional because it is easier for children to identify with them, and the stories are packed with symbolism so that with each retelling of the story the reader or listener can interpret them in different ways.

And we do keep reinterpreting them.

dublin fairytale

A Dublin Fairytale by Nicola Colton
This is a beautiful new picture book from a debut author that follows Fiona, a small girl dressed in red, to her grandmother’s house. It starts correctly – ‘Once upon a time’, but this is a twist on the traditional Red Riding Hood story. On the way she encounters a giant, a troll, and a dragon, but although they appear scary, they are actually all in distress in one way or another, and Fiona helps them out.

Then when the wolf nabs her basket, her new friends retrieve it for her – one good turn deserves another. They end up at Grandmother’s house – all together enjoying tea – and it turns out that Fiona’s grandmother is a friendly witch with a green face.

The magic lies in the setting. Fiona sets off with a map in hand, and each encounter with a fairy tale creature is set in a real place in Dublin –the book traces the city through illustrations.

The characters exude warmth, as does the book, which boasts tones of oranges and greens. It’s quite a unique illustrative style, old-fashioned almost, and hugely appealing to children, with easy shapes, interesting patterns, and beautiful detail on the buildings. A lovely addition to the fairy tale picture book canon. You can purchase from Waterstones here.

Imelda and the goblin king

Imelda and the Goblin King by Briony May Smith
The beautifully produced hardback version – with gold leaves and gold embossed title, a red spine and sumptuous cloth feel – gives an immediate suggestion that this book is fit for a king. The illustrations continue the theme – sumptuous colour and exquisite detail with old fashioned depictions of fairy creatures – elves and pixies with pointed ears, leafy wings, toadstools and garlanded heads. It is highly reminiscent of the flower fairies range.

It tells the story of Imelda, who ventures into an enchanted wood, populated by fairy folk. The Goblin King is a huge bully who arrives and locks up the Fairy Queen when things don’t suit him. Imelda plots for his comeuppance, and succeeds in ridding the forest of the bully – in fact he is turned into a worm!

The illustrations are what bring this story to life – each page is an adventure in itself, every fairy, pixie and elf seems to have its own distinct personality – the wings look like leaves, the flowers droop or bloom depending on mood, and the food looks stunningly sumptuous. There is exquisite detail, lovely use of speech bubbles, and humour as well. And of course, the moral of sharing and being friendly.

A beautiful book that would make a great gift. Purchase here.
 

 

Close to the Wind by Jon Walter

close to the wind

Walter’s second book, My Name’s Not Friday, may have been longlisted for The Guardian’s Children’s Fiction Prize this year, and nominated for the 2016 Carnegie Medal, but in case you are waiting for the paperback (July 2016), I suggest you read Jon Walter’s first book first, Close to the Wind. It was longlisted for the Carnegie Medal last year, and is a great piece of literature.

Close to the Wind tells the story of Malik, a refugee waiting with his grandfather for a ship to carry him across the sea to a promised land, where there are big houses with white picket fences and post boxes at the front gates. In order to secure them a place aboard, his grandfather makes a deal, but it’s not the one Malik imagines, and in the end, Malik must dig deep for the courage and tenacity to travel, and find a way to perfect a magic trick that might just save him.

This book works well in three different ways – keeping the reader in thrall to the very end. Cleverly conceived, although Malik is given a name, there are no clear indicators of time or place, so that the soldiers, the ship, the deserted houses, and the cast-aside animals drop clues to the reader but could belong to any war-torn country at any time. Malik becomes the everyman refugee – an everyboy.

Secondly, the plot is tightly planned so that everyday boyish incidents which seem trivial in the first part, become crucial to the second. Every action predetermines another – every thought is consequential. Saying that, it’s not a hard book to follow – the writing style weaves along simply enough so that the reader is swept along on the journey with Malik, and the plot reveal of Malik’s accomplished magic trick is breath-taking.

And thirdly, this simple story is jam-packed with emotion. From the anticipation of the journey aboard the ship at the beginning of the story, to the anger at betrayal, to a small boy’s fear of abandonment, and his bewilderment at the behaviour of others, to the abiding tension of whether he will ultimately succeed in his quest, his longing for resolution, the promise of the new and the remembrance of the old. There is no let up to the inner turmoil and conflict of the characters. In this way, it is a perfect read for our age – a perfect vehicle for empathy with those fleeing their homelands, for any child lost in an adult world. The final reconciliation brings so much joy that any reader will weep with relief and happiness. I wish there was a sequel – I was reluctant to leave Malik, even in the good hands he finally found himself.

This is Jon Walter’s debut novel. It is truly accomplished, so you won’t want to wait for the paperback of His Name’s Not Friday, you’ll want both books…as soon as possible. Recommended for 9+ years.

You can buy a copy here. Or go to http://www.davidficklingbooks.com/ for a signed copy.

I would like to thank Jake Hayes and Jon Walter for sending me a copy of the book.

Dynamic Duos

The world of children’s publishing is thriving. In part, this is down to massively popular illustrated books such as Wimpy Kid by Jeff Kinney and Tom Gates by Liz Pichon. This seems to have had two effects – one that children’s book publishers have slightly more money to play with, and two, that illustrated stories (beyond picture books) have become all the rage. These illustrations don’t just stand idly by portraying that which has been described by words – the illustrations push on the plot, define characters, and display visual jokes, using the full space of the page. There are excellent wordsmiths pairing up with superbly talented illustrators to create some DYNAMIC DUOS in children’s books. Here are three such pairs:

Mango and Bambang

Mango and Bambang: The Not-a-Pig written by Polly Faber and illustrated by Clara Vulliamy
A brand new pairing, Polly Faber’s debut writing is accompanied by Clara Vulliamy’s experienced illustrations. This exquisitely packaged book tells four delightful stories about Mango Allsorts, a girl who discovers a lost tapir and adopts him as her pet. The first page introduces (through words and pictures) the main characters in the story, and the first story explains how Mango met Bambang. The writing is simple and effective, and plays beautifully with the English language – explaining such things as how Mango’s papa spends his time ‘balancing books’. Polly Faber describes how Mango herself is good at all sorts of things (hence her name) but that wasn’t the same as being a good girl. The phrasing is enticing and winsome and the reader can bask with enjoyment at the wordplay. The illustrations play the same game – a simple two tone purple and black in colour, yet massively effective – the purple stripes of the opening pages contrasting with the black and white stripes of the zebra crossing where Mango meets a camouflaged Bambang, and then also complementing the stripes of Mango’s clothing. Clara’s pictures of the settings – eg, Mango’s city, the street traffic scene, etc, build a world around Polly’s words and the two mesh beautifully together to form a complete story. There is much to pore over. The stories are gentle – about kindness and friendship – the two characters complementing each other in a reflection of the pairing of author/illustrator. There is also a peacefulness that emanates from the book – childhood as a time for wonder and playfulness, as opposed to the busy world of the adults. The book feels very global, there is a real mix of dress, modes of transport, foodstuffs – and as in all good children’s literature there is a fair mention of food – banana pancakes in particular here. The other three stories involve a swimming pool, fabulous hats, and singing. It speaks to the inner child in everyone, and will enchant all newly independent readers. A lovely addition to books for this age group (6+). To purchase, click here.

pugs

Pugs of the Frozen North written by Philip Reeve and illustrated by Sarah McIntyre
This fabulous pairing can do no wrong at the moment. Following the huge success of Cakes in Space and Oliver and the Seawigs, comes my favourite so far. Pugs of the Frozen North is ‘Wacky Races on ice’. Shen and Sika enter the once in a lifetime race in True Winter to be the first to the North pole to see the Snowfather who grants wishes. Their sled is pulled by sixty-six pugs, who have been rescued from a shipwreck. It’s fantastical, magical and silly, with great charm. Reeve’s writing prose is a cut above – the plot races in time to the sled, the language is bewitching – a mass of alliteration throughout the novel using the letter ‘s’ – from the names of the children, Shen and Sika, to those of the polar bears, Snowdrop and Slushpuppy, to the number of pugs, ‘sixty-six’, to words associated with sleds and snow – ‘silvering of light’, ‘statues’, ‘slush’ and ‘snowmen’, not to mention the fifty types of snow – ‘screechsnow’, ‘shrinksnow’, ‘stonesnow’, ‘songsnow’…and made up words to describe the movement of the sled across the ice – ‘skreeling’. He isn’t afraid to use new language and to increase a young child’s vocabulary, and it’s all done to fit perfectly with the story.
Of course the humour shines through in abundance too. There are self-references to the Seawigs book, the yeti’s noodle bar instead of spaghetti (they wanted to avoid the obvious), and the camaraderie with the reader: “…looked very yeti-ish…you know the type of thing.” But the humour really shines with Sarah McIntyre’s fundamental illustrations. Sarah always shows how the story can be told through illustration, not just through text. We learn of the Chief Marshal’s mistake with the hot air balloon through the hilarious illustrated pages before it appears in the text, we are told through pictures only of the other racers’ mishaps (spot the selfie stick – it’s hugely comical), and of course the numerous wonderful drawings of 66 pugs. Particularly wonderful were those of the pugs warming in Helga’s beard, yipping at the Snowfather, and the endpapers with their names (look out for ‘Not-a-Pug’).
Children will adore this book – there is no let up in the pace: Shen, our main character, shows depth of character and thought – especially his anxiety about being disappointed at the end of the race, and the illustrations delight and amuse constantly. There’s a great use of landscape here too – from the types of snow, to the uses of it, and the Northern Lights. Read it, if only to find out what the Po of Ice is! This is a gem, all children aged 6+ will adore it and all parents will find it funny. Read it with your child so as not to miss out! Click here to purchase from Waterstones.

magic potions shop

The Magic Potions Shop: The Young Apprentice written by Abie Longstaff and illustrated by Lauren Beard
From the team behind the Fairytale Hairdresser comes a new series for slightly older readers. Although not afforded quite the same packaging as the two titles above, The Magic Potions Shop is a great stepping stone for newly independent readers – black and white illustrations on every page accompany large text that utilises italics, bold, and font changes to highlight particular words and phrases. The book tells the story of Tibben, apprentice to the Potions Master, who is trying hard to gain ‘glints’ on his robe, which will afford him the qualifications to become the next Potions Master. He starts the book by being rather inept, but through endeavour and bravery gradually earns his skill. The book is reminiscent of The Enchanted Wood by Enid Blyton, packed with mermaids, trolls, elves and sprites – and tells a typical adventure story complete with long journey (a map at the beginning shows the way), and magical happenings in the Kingdom of Arthwen. The vocabulary is largely accessible. Lauren’s illustrations don’t push the story along in the same way as in the titles above, but they do provide an extra layer of detail not given in the text. There’s a lovely section at the back detailing ingredients and potions – which will delight children. My only gripe is that the cover artwork for books one and two is tending towards being gender specific – whereas this is a series that could lend itself to being read by all. A good first reader though – I can see children devouring this new series. Buy it here.

Thank you to OUP for my review copy of Pugs, and to Abie Longstaff for my review copy of The Magic Potions Shop

I, Coriander by Sally Gardner

I Coriander
Republished by Orion in a special edition to celebrate its 10th anniversary, this is a historical novel for children that is brilliantly crafted, well-told and beautifully researched. Coriander is the daughter of a silk-merchant in 1650’s London. By candlelight, she tells the story of what happened to her after her mother’s death during the shaky period when Oliver Cromwell took power in England. Coriander’s father is a Royalist and after marrying a Puritan for protection, flees for France, leaving Coriander with her stepmother. Sally Gardner weaves fantasy into her historical novel, transporting Coriander to a fairy tale world for passages of the book, but this is brilliantly juxtaposed with her very real re-imagining of the politics and physical setting of London Bridge in the 1650’s. It is gripping from the beginning, summoning a vivid historical London, as well as setting a rapid pace for a plot paved with twists and turns. The characters feel authentic, even those within the fairy tale world.
Readers will delight in the fact that reality and fairy tale overlap – wicked stepmothers, princes, good and evil – the strands are so well integrated that it lends to the discussion of how fairy tales work and why they are told. The violence and abuse in the 1650’s scenes starkly contrast with the beautiful landscape of the fairy tale world, but both worlds portray good and evil in their various guises.
Told in the first person, Coriander is a well-defined and likeable feisty young woman, rebellious and brave, both straddling two worlds and torn between them. The reader cannot help but root for her. A thoroughly enjoyable read, for children aged ten plus. It won the 2005 Nestle Children’s Book Award.

With thanks to Orion for the review copy. To purchase your own, click here.

Alfie Bloom: The Secrets of Hexbridge Castle by Gabrielle Kent

alfie bloom

One of the most readable novels I’ve read in some time, Gabrielle Kent has crafted a finely woven mash-up of some of the best known children’s literature and created her own excellent adventure. Alfie Bloom, poor and bullied, receives a peculiar summons from an even stranger solicitor and discovers that he has inherited an extraordinary castle. Added to this, he appears to be the custodian of a potent magic, part of which allows him to ‘timeslip’ back hundreds of years. Once living in his castle, he realises that there is a dangerous force roaming the fields, trying to take his magic from him, and he must fight it to save himself and the local village.

There are numerous hidden references and allusions in this book to the great children’s writers. The headmistresses of the local school to which Alfie is transferred hail from the realms of Dahl. Named Murkle and Snitch, one short, one tall, yet with Trunchbull-like punishments and glee in issuing them. They are superbly imagined. Alfie’s friendship with his cousins, and their tree house, as well as the sumptuous meals described, hark back to Enid Blyton, and the flying bear rug speaks to many a fantasy author’s imagination – it reminded me of Mary Norton’s bedknob.

The darkness and magic are vividly conjured. Although not a wizard, Alfie’s Harry Potter tendencies mean he can feel the intensity of his powers as a physical manifestation; and the castle itself is a wonderful mixture of modern and ancient, with hidden passages, concealed rooms, rich tapestries and a chandelier in the Great Hall – which works with an electric light switch, but the switch doesn’t light bulbs, it causes a mechanical arm with a flame to individually light all the wicks. It’s well described, pitched perfectly at the intended age group, as are the descriptions of the characters:

“Her nose was sharp, her fingernails were sharp but Alfie soon realised that the sharpest thing about her was her voice.”

This was such a captivating read – it flowed so well – and ticked all the boxes of children’s literature – down to descriptions of food wherever possible, an absent parent, a phenomenal Christmas celebration, and a play within the main drama where all is revealed. If I was a child again, I’d hope for at least ten in the series – it would be my mainstay. Gabrielle Kent has really taken all those tropes and reimagined them into a great little book. This start to a new series is fabulously promising.

Buy it here. For a capable age seven and over.