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Quick Gift Guide: Books

Are you still stuck for Christmas gifts? Perhaps it’s not for Christmas, but a seasonal present. I’m always pleased to receive a book – and trust me I already have a few! Here are some eclectic titles that have nothing to do with Christmas, which various family members might like:

the boy and the bear
For the very young:
The Boy and the Bear by Tracey Corderoy and Sarah Massini
There’s a wintry feel with this delightful picture book about unlikely friendship, and patience. With glowing silver snowflakes on the cover, and a boy in a woolly hat holding hands with an adorable bear, the book gives a warm fuzzy feeling from the start. The story has an old-fashioned timeless feel, the boy running in the countryside flying a paper aeroplane with satchel swinging from his hip. There is not a screen in sight. Nor a friend either. But there is a shy bear. Although seemingly incompatible (in the most adorable ways), the pair strike a friendship, which has to take a hiatus for hibernation. The matching of text to illustration strikes perfection here. There is humour, pathos, a conveyance of the passing of time, and so much emotion. I suggested this for the very young, but if you’re young at heart, you’ll love this too. An absolute gem of a picturebook. You can buy it here.

Phoebe and Her Unicorn

For the unicorn-obsessed (and others)
Phoebe and Her Unicorn by Dana Simpson (7+)
This glittery pink full length comic strip novel tells a cute story in simple sharp lines, with jokes a-plenty, and will enthral youngsters with its tale of Phoebe and her vain mythical animal companion. Phoebe skips a rock across a pond and accidentally hits a unicorn in the face. The unicorn, until then completely absorbed in its own reflection, is thankful for the distraction and grants Phoebe a wish. She wishes for the unicorn, Marigold Heavenly Nostrils, to be her obligatory best friend. And thus the adventures begin. As you’ve noticed from the name of the unicorn, there’s more than a hint of mischief here, but the book also bears a special message about overcoming loneliness and finding one’s own strengths and virtues. This is a lot of fun, and because the comic strip maintains focus on the key characters rather than deviating too much into the landscape, and the strips are self-contained, the story is easy to follow for reluctant readers. The newest full length comic strip title is Phoebe and Her Unicorn in Unicorn Theater. Sweet and sugary, and reminiscent of My Little Pony with a bit of attitude, this is a US title now available here.

the ink house
For the appreciative art fan:
The Ink House by Rory Dobner (8+)
This isn’t a usual picture book. More a unique curiosity through the artist’s mind as he seeks to explore the insides of The Ink House, an intricately designed mansion built on a pool of ink, in which a party of animals is due to take place, after the human resident takes off in a hot air balloon to search for further knickknacks to add to his treasured collection.

The illustrations, in ink of course, are amazingly detailed and stunningly imagined. There’s a darkness, a gothic tendency in the drawings, and the feeling is that each stroke is penned as delicately as if he were crafting a poem. The story isn’t really a story – just a menagerie of animals within a setting, and the scenes in which Dobner showcases the house in most detail work best. The mouse on the desk with piles of books, clocks, candle, quill pen; the ape in armchair with guitar, old-fashioned tea set, and gramophone showcases the neat juxtaposition between old and new, distorting one’s expectations and reality; the horses in the tiled hallway complete with pillars and a view onto the gardens. The artwork is disturbing, disjointed and wonderful, justifying the purchase even if the text is a little clunky. My advice – add your own words to the pictures, and tell the story in your head. You can buy it here.

absolutely everything

For everyone:
Absolutely Everything by Christopher Lloyd, illustrated by Andy Forshaw
The author of this conversational tome is nothing if not ambitious. The contents of this nonfiction narrative span from the Big Bang through dinosaurs, homo sapiens, ancient civilisations, the classical empires to the medieval, age of exploration, revolutions, wars and onwards. Everything in fact. The tone is avuncular, as if you’ve asked a favourite relative to let loose – tell me about the ancient Greeks, Chris…In this chapter, Lloyd starts with an anecdote about an olive, which merges into why olive oil was so precious, then onto slaves, democracy and war…you can see how the narrative flows from one idea to another, incorporating facts, events and stories. Each section is colour-coded for easy reference and there are colour visuals throughout, from illustrations adorning the text to photos, maps, timelines etc. There’s a nice linear progression to the book, an understanding of how one thing in history leads to another (although this is definitely Western civilisation’s history), and an over-riding infectious enthusiasm to explore how societies linked up, how the world became global. Engrossing and all-encompassing. Give as a gift, and keep a copy for yourself. The sort of book to stop you getting bored in the holidays. You can buy it here.

Cover Reveal: Good Boy by Mal Peet, illustrations by Emma Shoard

In our busy lives, it’s not often that a book arrives and sweeps everything else away – work, washing, worrying. The late Mal Peet had a way with words that was more than immersive – his stories have the power to create not only belief in the authenticity of the story, but a whirlwind of sensation and wonder, a lasting sense of intelligent thoughtfulness. Good Boy is an unsettling novella, published by Barrington Stoke in a slim yet captivating volume that features Shoard’s emotive illustrations, enhancing and emboldening Peet’s text. With content aimed squarely at the YA audience, yet a reading age of 8, this is an accessible story, an examination of fear that leaves the reader ruminating and discussing long after the final page.

Sandie has been battling it since childhood: the hulking, snarling black dog of her recurring nightmare. Although a solution is found during childhood, it is the black dog’s return in adulthood that will test Sandie’s courage to the limit…

I’m delighted to showcase the cover for Good Boy. For me, Emma Shoard’s cover bristles with both menace and vulnerability. What do you think? Read Emma’s view below:

good boy

Emma Shoard says:

Though this cover went through quite a few variations, we always wanted it to show the black dog and for the overall impression to be dark.

I wanted to make something of the juxtaposition between the image of the nightmarish black dog and the title, Good Boy. I like the way that it makes you look again and see his moon eyes and hunched shoulders in a different light, perhaps interpret the posture as protective, curious, monumental even, not just menacing. I needed this to come cross in my illustration so it took quite a few attempts to get him right. The result is a design which I hope reflects the ambiguity of Mal Peet’s story.”

Fear stalks us all in some way or another, and this is a masterful way of exploring where it comes from, how it manifests itself, how we deal with it, and if we can overcome it.

On reading the novella, the reader senses immediately the confidence of the writing, the simplicity of the story, yet the powerful insight of Peet’s observation and reflection. A girl is comforted by ‘the biscuity smell of her mother’s bed-warmth’, a dog has ‘wet black button’ eyes in a patchwork head, a building on an estate is ‘a huge slab of a place jutting rudely up into the sky’. And Shoard’s illustrations run through a gamut of feelings with just a few brushstrokes – a mother’s embrace, a pet dog’s vulnerability, the darkness that lurks in us all. A haunting, captivating, ambiguous story. Don’t miss this one. It’s published on 15th March 2019.

The Night I Met Father Christmas by Ben Miller Extract

the night i met father christmasI’m delighted to be able to share with you an exclusive extract of The Night I Met Father Christmas by Ben Miller. (Please click the title to read my review). I’m sure most children have dreamed about coming downstairs on Christmas Eve to find Father Christmas in the act of emerging from the chimney through the fireplace, with his bulging toy sac over his shoulder, ready to deposit all those lovely goodies for Christmas Day. In Ben Miller’s book, a small boy waits up all night to do just that. But when he does meet Father Christmas, the most extraordinary thing happens – Father Christmas begins to tell him the story of how he became Father Christmas – and it’s not at all how you might expect. This extract takes place just after the boy hears bells ringing and rushes into his living room to see lumps of soot falling into the grate. Father Christmas is coming….

 

 

 

 

 

You can buy The Night I Met Father Christmas by Ben Miller here.

 

Younger Fiction

There have been some beautiful stories for younger children recently – books for newly independent readers (those comfortable enough to tackle chapter books by themselves).

legend of kevinThe Legend of Kevin by Philip Reeve and Sarah McIntyre

Reeve and McIntyre, of Cakes in Space fame, bring their zany storytelling to this new magical tale about a rotund flying pony, blown from the outermost West to a tower block in Bumbleford. The over-riding theme is friendship but there’s a pervasive feeling of community throughout, and an understanding of providing solutions for problems, no matter how peculiar the problem (mermaid hair styling), and how outlandish the solution. There’s acceptance of difference, and an emphasis on ordinary heroes.

The success of this author/illustrator pairing, and there are those who wait ravenously for each new book, is that the text and pictures work perfectly in harmony. Gaps in the text are filled by the pictures, humour in the pictures is enhanced by the text. The pair know exactly how to pace the book, when to digress and when to pull back to the plot. With their trademark mermaids and naughty sea monkeys, this is a delight (for slightly younger audiences than their previous books), and marks a determined shift towards reality, as the Outermost West comes to a city not unlike the reader’s, complete with mundane shops, headmasters and mayors. You can buy it here.

sherlock and baker street curseSherlock and the Baker Street Curse by Sam Hearn

Super sleuthing comes to the younger fiction department in this glorious play on the trope of Sherlock Holmes. Transported into a school, the Baker Street Academy, Sherlock is just a school boy solving mysteries. But it’s the use of media that works so well here. The plot is relayed through a series of different text formats – Watson’s diary, comic strip illustrations, notice boards, webchats, emails etc. There’s a mystery to solve of course – and the reader can solve alongside Holmes, Watson and Hudson, as long as they don’t get misguided by a red herring.

In this book in the series, Sherlock and his friends have to solve a ghost mystery, dating back to when the school building was a family home. There is a great warmth that exudes from the text, and the dialogue feels authentic and friendly. A slick introduction to mysteries. You can buy it here.

ivy and beanIvy and Bean: One Big Happy Family by Annie Barrows, illustrated by Sophie Blackall

I had my favourite American characters when I was little – Ramona Quimby and Amelia Bedelia spring to mind instantly. I don’t know if it was their spunky characters or their derring-do adventures, or perhaps the setting – in a school grade system I didn’t understand, with towns boasting large white houses with sweeping driveways, and vibrant lawns with tyre swings hanging from trees. For the next generation, and slightly more down-to-earth, is Ivy and Bean. This delightful friendship between quiet Ivy and rambunctious Bean, two seven-year-olds who live in the same street, is a celebration of old-fashioned values and community America. But mainly it’s just a fun chronicle of two girls and their neighbourhood adventures. What appeals most is the amount of free time the girls have to indulge their passions and make their own fun – rather like The Secret Seven did.

Barrows seems to have an understanding of the limitless possibilities offered by the best childhoods, and she includes all the fabulous childhood obsessions from glitter, to being made to tidy up, to sharing. This eleventh book in the series celebrates being an only child, or rather not being spoiled. You can buy it here.

first prize for worst witchFirst Prize for the Worst Witch by Jill Murphy

Another series that should be celebrated for its longevity is The Worst Witch. Not only bearing my favourite character names, Mildred Hubble’s and enemy Ethel Hallow’s images are burned onto my brain – those illustrious illustrations of schoolgirl witches hanging on broomsticks with plaits flailing behind them, dangling untied shoelaces, and the haughty thinness of Miss Hardbroom. The utter enjoyment of seeing Mildred learning from her mistakes continues to this day, with Mildred battling to be chosen as Head Girl, against all the odds. Although the first in the series was published in 1974, this latest (and reportedly last) lives up to the high standard set by the first, and is an utter nostalgic joy for the adult reader, and an excellent gentle introduction to chapter books for new readers – it’s humorous, accessible and still relevant. You can buy it here.

nelly and monster sitterNelly the Monster Sitter: the Grerks at No. 55 by Kes Gray, illustrated by Chris Jevons

Repackaged in August with new illustrations, although the original text was first published in 2005, these hilarious books sit comfortably between Horrid Henry and The Bolds as accessible, funny, highly illustrated chapter books just right for newly independent readers. Nelly likes monsters, and happily takes care of the little monsters in the neighbourhood after school whilst the parent monsters take some time off. She’s in high demand, but has no idea of the type of monster she’ll encounter before she arrives. Each adventure showcases Nelly’s wit and quick-thinking – she’s a brave, down-to-earth and likeable protagonist, and as one would expect from Kes Gray, there is plenty of word play, great visual description (enhanced by the illustrations), and a lively exuberance that permeates the text. The winning formula here is that the monsters’ lives are so mundane. You can buy it here.

oscar and catastropheOscar and the CATastrophe by Alan MacDonald, illustrated by Sarah Horne

Another skilled writer for this age group is the indomitable Alan MacDonald, author of the Dirty Bertie and Superhero School series, among others. His straightforward easy to understand style is great for flourishing readers, and enables them to zip through his books at speed, promoting confidence and fluency. Oscar and the CATastrophe is the third in this series about Oscar the talking dog and his owner Sam. In this latest adventure, Oscar has been shocked to silence by the appearance of a neighbourhood cat and Sam is worried about the jewel thief in town. Gentle humour and basic plotting, but perfect for growing readers. You can buy it here.

Beauty and Nature

I may live an urban life, but there are still pockets of natural beauty all around. There’s a pathway near my house that leads between two fields in which horses graze, and the other morning half the grass was dusted with a sprinkle of frost and emitted a white glow, while the stark green of the other side was trampled as the horses meandered and whinnied. Looking up, we saw a plethora of autumnal reds, yellows and browns, as differently shaded leaves fluttered on the branches above us.

perfectly peculiar plantsPerfectly Peculiar Plants by Chris Thorogood, illustrated by Catell Ronca

The overwhelming vibrancy of this book sucks in the reader as if they are a fly teetering on the edge of a Venus flytrap. Featuring a different plant on each double page spread, the colour of the illustrated plant takes over the page, blending with the insects and birds depicted alongside it. With a watercolour wash background, this is an immersive plant book, a far cry from ancient plant identification tomes that feel cold and staid. Indeed, Ronca’s illustration of the bee orchid looks like a psychedelic Kandinsky painting.

Written by a professional botanist, the text doesn’t shy away from complete explanations and correct information. There are Latin names here, but also exciting enthusiastic prose that aims to convey a love and respect for plants as well as an interest. And the plants chosen are truly magnificent. They are peculiar indeed – from the Dead Horse Arum which looks like an animal’s tongue and apparently smells like a rotting animal, to the Giant Waterlily, which produces heat. The text is written in small paragraphs in a large typeface but for so few sentences, Thorogood provides specific, pertinent information in easy to understand language.

The selected plants are global, and feature different peculiarities, but there’s also an emphasis on some general information about plants – how they get energy, how they work with animals, and of course how they need protecting.

A glut of information, displayed wondrously. You can buy it here.

book of treesThe Book of Trees by Piotr Socha, illustrated by Wojciech Grajkowski

I am lucky to be surrounded by trees despite living in London. A cherry tree lightly brushes the front window, and I can see the broad oaks, beeches and chestnuts that line the roads and fields opposite. Socha’s book is as large in scope as the oak, attempting not to just identify trees, but to understand their importance, their physical and spiritual natures. This large hardback is beautiful in itself – a beauty that comes in part from its source material, and Socha references this.

In fact, this is almost a story of trees rather than a non-fiction book. Its narrative sweeps from a basic understanding of the cyclical nature of trees, to their physicality – age, size, material, leaf shapes etc, to their spiritual and magical elements, their role in the environment as homes and sources of food, to the elements they inspire – wood art, buildings, musical instruments, human-constructed tree-houses and so much more. But the tree’s overwhelming beauty and magnificence makes itself known in the stunning illustrations that dominate the pages – leaving just a strip of text at the border to highlight information. The range of leaves and roots is illustrated, but as the reader journeys through the tree and its importance in different cultures, the author/illustrator team showcase how trees have been used to map our evolution, to map families, and to provide spiritual succour. As with The Book of Bees, there is humour liberally applied to the fact-giving, and a sophistication in both image and text. The Ta Prohm temple in Cambodia pictured overgrown with tree roots is simply sublime. You can buy it here.

wild buildings and bridgesWild Buildings and Bridges: Architecture Inspired by Nature by Etta Kaner and Carl Wiens

It is fairly rare to come across a mainstream children’s book on architecture, and this is certainly one of the more pleasing ones. The premise is the exploration of how nature’s patterns and design informs architecture – using the beauty and aesthetics of nature, as well as problem-solving features within the laws of nature, to good effect in man-made structures. As well as general spreads giving examples of such buildings, there are also small profiles of architects and small experiments to conduct at home – teaching by practical example.

All of this is explained in a range of text, diagrams, illustrations and photographs. Techniques that copy nature include conservation of water, keeping cool, repelling water and strength in shape and design. There are also references to inspirations – the Gherkin in London was inspired by the Venus Flower-basket Sponge. Some of the buildings and structures are quite extraordinary – the Easter Dawyck Bridge that mimics nature’s recycling process, the Council House 2 office block in Melbourne that is modelled on African termite towers, the Wave apartment complex in Denmark that aims to mirror the water of the fjord on which it sits.

There are even admissions of mistakes when architects haven’t quite understood the science behind the natural structures they are copying. This is a fascinating book, documenting not only how we learn from nature but also how we can try and live in harmony with it – using natural light, or local materials and resources. You can buy it here.

riversRivers by Peter Goes

The beauty of this book lies not so much in its depiction of nature, but in the stylistically elaborate carving of time and space into the geographic linearity of the world’s rivers. Goes blends the true depiction of the shape of each river that he profiles with an almost surreal aura, festooning each river with tributaries of information and branches of illustrations to sum up the cultural, historical, and natural history of his rivers.

Covering rivers all over the globe from the Thames in Europe to the Yukon in North America, the Niger in Africa to the Fly in Oceania, Goes takes each river and uses his scattered style to meander from the centre of his river into a stream of consciousness about it. So, for example, The Thames profiles its source and route as well as its water level, but also explores the meaning behind the name, the history of the Frost Fair, the kingfisher on the water, The Thames Barrier, the Henley Boat Race and so much more – each nugget of information illustrated in monochrome. There’s a playfulness to the information too – some personal opinion, and clearly a very personal selection of rivers and facts, but this is an extraordinarily dramatic graphic resource. You can buy it here.

 

A Very Christmas Roundup

how winston delivered ChristmasThe first book on your radar for Christmas should be How Winston Delivered Christmas by Alex T Smith. This is the most sumptuous book, but a word of warning, you need to give this present early. The neat conceit is that the story has been written in 24 and a half chapters, one chapter to share every day in the lead up to Christmas – ending with a final special story time for Christmas morning. Now, I like advent calendars with chocolate windows, but a book with a story behind every window is even better. The story is about Winston, a homeless young mouse with an important mission, and a special message about the joy of little kindnesses rather than just the material side of the festivities.

But more than just a story, there are also activities throughout, such as writing a letter to Father Christmas, making Christmas cards, a recipe for mince pies and so on – all the traditional things a family might do in the run up to the holiday season, but here with a neat tie-in to the story. There are also ideas that might be new – but feel traditional: making an orange pomander, stained-glass window biscuits, and even a pompom robin.

Not only are the activities fun, easy and related to the season and story, the story itself combines all the attractive tropes of Christmas narratives – the old-fashioned department store, gingerbread men, a nativity scene, toys and snow. And of course, there’s a happy ending and the lyrics of carols at the end.

This is a perfect Christmas book, lovingly produced with a green bookmark ribbon, a fabric spine, and beautiful colour illustrations, through which the warmth of happiness radiates – a lit shop window, a kitchen all a-glow, a dolls’ house, headlights in the snow. Magical and heartwarming. You can buy it here.

pick a pine tree
If you’re looking for a picturebook, there is a glut of tie-ins but for something original, Pick a Pine Tree by Patricia Toht, illustrated by Jarvis might tick the box. It’s also suitable for the run-in to Christmas itself, being all about choosing and decorating a tree. It’s unabashedly Christmassy, with nothing held back in its glorious rhyming list of the things needed to turn a pine into a Christmas tree. The text is magical in itself, a gentle rhythm that speeds up with the excitement of Christmas, but the illustrations imbue the book with light and warmth again, whether it’s the brightness of the children’s faces around the tree, or the up-close inside tree drawing of baubles, paper angel dolls and pine needles. You can buy it here.

jingle spells
Another book that seems to fall in between the start of autumn and Christmas itself is Jingle Spells by James Brown, a rather delicious mash up of Halloween and Christmas, as Trixie the witch prefers Christmas to Halloween, although her fellow witches think that’s strange, and the Christmas Elves judge her on her appearance and reputation (fearful of tricksy witches). In the end, Trixie helps the elves and Santa get over their winter colds with a warming potion, and they help her to bring Christmas to everyone. Heartfelt, and gloriously illustrated with lots of colour – an emphasis on red and yellow against a blue background helping to bring that magical Christmas warmth again. You can buy it here.

very corgi christmas
Royalty is all the rage at the moment, with a King in waiting, a new baby on the way, and the memory of a couple of weddings this year. But, if you prefer your royalty corgi style, then A Very Corgi Christmas by Sam Hay, illustrated by Loretta Schauer will suit. It tells the simple story of the youngest corgi – enthralled with the rush and excitement of Christmas – who gets lost in London and befriended by a more worldly dog. The book works as a paean to London, showcasing an illustration of a dazzling silhouetted London skyline through a window before honing in on the corgi experiencing Piccadilly Circus (a bit too bright for her), a London bus, the London Eye, Big Ben unscaffolded and a London theatre. Even a London litter bin is given central stage. There are plenty of union jacks too – this is a London Christmas to the top of the tree. And of course a happy ending. You can buy it here.

sammy claus
From dogs to cats, Sammy Claws: The Christmas Cat by Lucy Rowland and Paula Bowles understands a cat’s life. Sammy Claws will sleep anywhere, but when he falls asleep in a box on Christmas Eve, he finds himself wrapped in a present and due for delivery with no way of telling Santa of the mix-up. Hiding in his box, Sammy hears of Bad Billy’s and Mischievous May’s plans to steal Santa’s Christmas presents, and finds that yowling fiercely and jumping out can quite seriously shock robbers. This is a delightful Christmas rhyming tale, and although it borrows heavily on other picture books in which canny animals outwit stupid robbers, there is enough dastardly action and colourful Christmassy illustrations to win over every child. At its centre sits a cat with a huge personality. Watch out for smart touches in the illustrations such as Santa’s sleigh goggles, clever rhyming in a bouncy lively text, and the neat ending too. You can buy it here.

how to hide a lion at christmas
If you do like tie-ins, How to Hide a Lion at Christmas by Helen Stephens retains the magic of the original in this Christmas story of Iris going to visit family for Christmas and being made to leave the lion behind – because he is a little large and might offend their hosts. Many parents have negotiated with children about leaving toys home when they travel, and this is a rather sweet tale of the lion deciding to follow of his own accord. With trains, snow, carol singers and Father Christmas, this also brings to mind old-fashioned Christmases. Stephens has an astute understanding of how to draw her lion to look realistic (reclining on a tree) but also to make him naturally fit within the domestic sphere too – this lion always reminds me of The Tiger Who Came to Tea – I wonder who would get all the Christmas dinner if they were sat at the same table. You can buy it here.

the snowman
If you’re revisiting classics, the key title has to be The Snowman by Michael Morpurgo, illustrated by Robin Shaw. Yes, this is based upon the original story and drawings from Raymond Briggs, but to mark the 40th anniversary of the original picture book, this year the publishers have released a brand new novel. At first you may ponder why such a re-imagining is necessary, but there is a simple continuity in Morpurgo’s version, a nod to modern sensibilities, and an understanding of the gentle care it needs to revisit this classic Christmas tale.

The original Snowman picture book is wordless and doesn’t feature Father Christmas as a character, but Morpurgo has merged the collective memory of the book and animation into his new story, imagining a boy named James with a stutter who takes a magical Christmas Eve flight with his Snowman to a party, where he does meet Father Christmas. In Morpurgo’s version there is the introduction of a Grandma figure, who not only reads The Snowman to James but eventually takes flight with him too. It’s an interesting dynamic to add to the tale, showing the inter-generational relationships that exist, and profiling how James and his grandmother relate to each other. Nice touches include Brussels sprout buttons for the Snowman, and the newly found confidence James develops. I would quibble that some of the Christmas gifts feel dated already, but the gentle tone sits nicely alongside the original. Extras at the back include instructions on how to make the perfect snowman. You can buy it here.

the night i met father christmas
Lastly, The Night I Met Father Christmas by Ben Miller, the comedian, is a mash up between A Christmas Carol and Elf. A small boy with avid curiosity wants to know how Father Christmas became Father Christmas. When he meets him on Christmas Eve, he hears the story from the man (or rather elf) himself – a story within a story format. The tale he recounts is about the elf Torvil, now miserly and mean, who is shown Christmas past, present and future by red-nosed reindeers and magic trees. It’s a pure spin off from Dickens, but told in a spritely jovial way with old-fashioned hot chocolate warmth. As well as the first person narration from the small boy, and the third person narration of Torvil’s story, there are also narrative asides, which seemingly may come from Torvil or the boy, but feel much more as if they come from Miller – hoping the reader never has an accident, waxing lyrical on the joys of sled-rides. It jolts the reader slightly from the narrative, but the whole is so easy to read, so joyful and formulaic (how could it not be, following past, present and future), that it feels familiar and new at the same time. I read an early proof so couldn’t see the illustrations, but the publishers promise illustrations throughout from Danielle Terrazini. Look out for an extract of the book on my blog in early December. You can buy it here. Happy Christmas shopping.

NNFN Jewish Foods and Festivals

The theme for this year’s National Non-Fiction November is ‘Food and Festivals Around the World’. I couldn’t help but jump onto the bandwagon with a look at Jewish festivals and their food, seeing as every festival has a distinctive and mainly yummy food associated with it.

rise and shine
Shabbat falls every week on a Friday night and is the time for families to come together to share a meal. The food most associated with this is challah – a braided bread. Rise and Shine: A Challah-Day Tale by Karen Ostrove, illustrated by Kimberly Scott, tells the tale of when Sammy and Sophie find a crumpled bit of paper in an old cooking apron but can’t read the writing. Their grandmother explains it’s a recipe in Yiddish for baking challah, and with the help of family members, they bake it in time for Shabbat. This sweet story exemplifies the importance of inter-generational activities, cultural inheritance, and of course the joy to be found in baking bread. You can buy it here.

whats the buzz
At the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashana, it is customary to celebrate the wish for a sweet new year by eating sweet foods, in particular dipping apple in honey. This could also be tzimmes (typically a sweetened dish of carrots), or my favourite, the honey cake. Of course there’d be no honey without bees, and What’s the Buzz? Honey for a Sweet New Year by Allison Maile Ofanansky, photographs by Eliyahu Alpern, takes the reader for a photographic tour around a bee farm, exploring how honey is extracted from the honeycomb and how a hive operates. A good non-fiction resource, there’s a fun fact section at the end.

all of a kind family hanukkah
Hanukkah lasts for eight days, and is known as the Festival of Lights, but most children welcome it for its glut of doughnuts. Jewish people typically eat foods fried in oil, such as latkes and doughnuts, to celebrate the miracle of the oil lamp and the rededication of the temple in Jerusalem. However, it’s not krispy kremes but a special type of doughnut called sufganiot, which the Jewish bakeries sell. Gooey jam inside, sprinkles of sugar on the outside – these small round treats are light and fluffy. Just published this year, All-of-a-Kind Family Hanukkah by Emily Jenkins, illustrated by Paul O Zelinsky takes the All-of-a-Kind Family from the original book by Sydney Taylor, set at the turn of the last century in New York, and revisits them in 1912 in the tenements of the Lower East Side of NYC as Hanukkah approaches. This beautiful narrative gives a significance to the immigrant experience as it explores the sights and sounds of Jewish immigrant family, and shows how the cultural customs have lasted. You can buy it here.

purim superhero
Purim is a popular holiday – a time of dressing up and play-acting and the retelling of the story of Esther, who saved the Jewish people in ancient Persia. The hamantaschen is the food of choice, a triangular-shaped pastry or biscuit filled with poppy seeds or jam (and nowadays even chocolate) that is said to represent the hat of the baddie in Esther’s story. Perhaps representation can feel a little thin in some Jewish children’s books. The Purim Superhero by Elisabeth Kushner, illustrated by Mike Byrne, focusses more on the costumes than the food of Purim, but strikes an important message for our times. Nate wants to dress as an alien for Purim but all his friends are going as superheroes. Taking inspiration from Esther, as well as from his two dads, he devises a super alien costume. This is a bright and happy picture book, which not only shows what a modern family does at Purim, but also features a non-traditional family. You can buy it here.

sweet passover
In the spring, and hovering around the same time as Easter, is the Jewish festival of Passover. Celebrating the story of the Israelites fleeing Egypt (the Exodus), the narrative explains how they didn’t have enough time to bake bread for the journey, and so left with bread that wasn’t risen – matzah. Today, Jewish people celebrate with a whole selection of symbolic foods on the table during the telling of the story at the holiday meal – the seder. But matzah is always the first food that comes to mind, mainly because most people dislike the ‘cardboard’ like texture of the crackers. This sentiment is echoed by Miriam in A Sweet Passover by Leslea Newman, illustrated by David Slonim. By the last day of this eight-day festival, Miriam is “sick, sick, sick of matzah” despite having eaten it with a whole variety of spreads including chocolate, jam, cheese, tuna and egg. Her grandfather encourages her to try his matzah brie – like French toast but with matzah instead of bread. The book is almost as delicious as matzah brie itself, managing to slip in the exodus story and make insightful little comments too.

Zebras and Lollipops

On route to take my younger children to school, we have to cross four roads. Two are minor, and two are main roads, neither of which two years ago had a zebra crossing. I decided to use my campaigning skills to petition the council and Transport for London to install one on the school’s road. And to my delight, a year later, they did. Now I use it about four times a day, and it serves the local park too.

phantom lollipop manAnother school that has a zebra crossing outside, is Izzy’s school in the Pamela Butchart book, The Phantom Lollipop Man, illustrated by Thomas Flintham. This seventh book in the ‘Baby Aliens’ series continues the exploits of Izzy and her friends and their school. In this title the friends are shocked to discover that their lollipop man has disappeared. Instead, they feel an unsettling coldness even when wearing tights, and start to see wispy clouds in the playground. Could he have died and now be haunting the school? So Izzy and her friends determine to find out.

On the surface, this is another exuberant adventure from brilliant comedy writer Pamela Butchart. The text flows with Izzy’s characteristic breathlessness, driving the reader through the plot and as always staying true to the brilliant friendship group, each member clearly distinguished by their character traits.

But what makes the book so endearing, other than the CAPITAL LETTERS, illustrations and energetic use of dialogue, is Butchart’s complete comprehension of schools. From her understanding about the importance of blu tack through to school office workers’ signs and the attitude of lunch supervisors, this is imperative as young readers feel a sense of familiarity with the world being created.

And although the books are hilarious – this one in particular had me laughing out loud every few pages and is definitely the funniest so far – there is an insightful compassion for the community of a school – the way that each component is dependent on another, and some real truths about what we value in society.

Izzy and her friends point to the lack of value we place upon certain people – lollipop workers included (but also perhaps, the school officer workers, the librarians, careworkers etc) and how important their roles are, and how they should be recognised. It’s a subtle message underlying the hugely comedic text, but a vital one. And Butchart also points out the loneliness that can be experienced in old age – when juxtaposed with the intense intimacy of Izzy and her friends, it becomes even more apparent.

This is a superb book that deals with community, values and society, and rounds off nicely with good use of the library and empathy for other people. A riotous, happy, storming success. A really top series for newly independent readers. I hope they keep coming. You can buy it here.

zebra crossing soul songOn a similar theme, but for teen readers is Zebra Crossing Soul Song by Sita Brahmachari. This is a book published by dyslexia specialists Barrington Stoke, and is suitable for a reading age of 8, even though its subject matter is for teens. But it’s an enjoyable read for all.

Lenny has spent most of his eighteen years crossing the nearby zebra crossing, aided by the singing ‘zebra man’ Otis. But when Otis isn’t there anymore, Lenny, who is himself struggling as he sits his psychology A-level, looks back on his memories of them together, through music, and finds a way to move forwards.

Cleverly, the fixed point of the zebra crossing gives a clear focus for Lenny to look back on his school years from nursery to A-Level as he reaches a crossroads in his life. And the shared passion of music gives Lenny and Otis a clear bond, and also a vehicle for Brahmachari to use music as a distinguishing feature in her novel, as the story is written in music memory tracks – music as a recall mechanism, but also as a form of writing in its own right – like a poem.

When Otis disappears, Lenny uses his knowledge of psychology and memory, as well as music to find out what happened in Otis’s past to affect his future, and discovers that not only does music hold a bond with the past, but a vital component of Lenny’s life going forwards.

This is a cleverly woven piece, with a sympathetic bond between two people, and, as in Butchart’s light-hearted book, an awareness that although some people aren’t highly valued by society, they are highly valuable as individuals and in the role they play. Lollipop men and women are there to save lives – and sometimes literally do, and they play a positive role in shaping the community they serve. Sometimes it’s the quiet people who make the difference. You can buy it here.

 

 

Up and Away: The Skies

How often do we look up to the skies? More and more we stretch our necks downwards to look at our phones and fail to take in what’s at eye level. But even rarer is for us to look skywards. These five wonderful non-fiction titles, and one picturebook for children, explore the world above our heads – both in the day, and at night-time.

the skies above my eyesThe Skies Above My Eyes by Charlotte Guillain, illustrated by Yuval Zommer

A follow up title to the hugely popular The Street Beneath My Feet, this is a book that unfolds concertina style to explore the expanse of space above our heads. Very beautifully, the two sides follow different paths: one is countryside/rural-based in that a girl is seen lying on her back staring up through the trees, and looking at migrating birds, spiders ballooning, cloud formations and up to the Solar System past the Northern Lights. On the converse side, which is technologically-based, the girl is seen staring up past skyscrapers, to helicopters, aeroplanes, weather balloons and space rockets into the Solar System. With measurements given along the chart, and information about the atmosphere, history and physics, this is a fascinating guide to the skies above us, and all that they contain.

The book folds out to a whopping 2.5 metres tall – I cannot hold it up fully when standing, but laid out along a school corridor or a living room, this is a wonderful way to explore non-fiction. Zommer’s illustrations lend themselves both to the factual element – his rocket is intricate and cleverly shadowed, but also to the whimsical, with a floating umbrella Mary Poppins style. A well-designed, intriguing collaboration – this is exactly how to fascinate children with the world around us. You can buy it here.

cat's guide to the night skyA Cat’s Guide to the Night Sky by Stuart Atkinson, illustrations by Brendan Kearney

A more traditional guide to astronomy and the night sky in this well-designed and attractive non-fiction book. Atkinson’s long experience of writing about space and astronomy is apparent in the way that he distils tricky ideas into simple sentences, exploring in a down-to-earth way how to star gaze. Beginning with keeping safe outdoors, the book (and its guide Felicity the Cat) takes the reader through the different seasons – the best time of year to view particular constellations and what the reader should be looking for, with explanation about the makeup of stars, the phases of the Moon, the Northern Lights and much more. Atkinson is matter-of-fact about what the constellations really look like, and how to try to view a planet, but Felicity the Cat adds nice philosophical touches, such as wondering if anyone is looking back at her too.

The graphics are excellent, both the phases of the Moon and the constellations well-delineated, and there’s a feeling of immense friendliness and warmth in the domestic images of garden viewing platforms, as well as added humour with Felicity, who dresses according to the season. Includes a glossary and index. Age 7+ You can buy it here.

 

starry skiesStarry Skies by Samantha Chagollan and Nila Aye

For younger children interested in the shapes and patterns made by the stars, this is an elegant and beautiful tactile little hardback with stiff board pages. A die-cut on the cover with an uncomplicated yellow star and a teddy bear with stars for eyes showcases the target age group and the simplicity of the graphics within. The author explains that the positions of the stars tell a story, and each double spread includes a constellation with an imaginative narrative sentence alongside: Ursa Major and minor are seen when ‘Sophia’ and her mom [sic] take a forest path, Pegasus is shown alongside ‘Leah’ on horseback ready to spread her wings and fly. The two-colour scheme of yellow and black works well to really illuminate the constellations, and the book is hardy and practical for taking outside. Age 4+ Stargaze here.

 

 

 

voyage through spaceVoyage Through Space by Katy Flint, illustrated by Cornelia Li

Appealing on another level with a glow-in-the-dark fold out poster of the solar system (nicely attached and easily detached to the book with a perforated edge), is this straightforward but rather cartoonishly illustrated information book about the solar system. Each planet is afforded a double spread – with lovely illustrations of a young female astronaut and her dog peering at each planet. A glare is carefully shaded onto her mask, and she wears glasses near the sun – our courageous astronaut is seen landing on the Moon and optimistically Mars – other illustrations are even more supposed, such as when she views the asteroid belt sitting upon one of the orbiting rocks. But the text is fact-based – explaining definitions, measurements and scientists’ hypotheses.

The colour palette is particularly alluring – Neptune is cast in almost phosphorescent blue, Saturn a golden glow, Mars a rusty brown-red. Captions and annotations help to explore the full-page images, and although short, this is a great introduction to the solar system for intrepid space explorers. Age 5+. You can buy it here.

 

planetariumWelcome to the Museum: Planetarium by Chris Wormell and Raman Prinja

Planetarium is the latest in the Welcome to the Museum series, this time in conjunction with the Science Museum. Wormell’s last collaboration in this series was on Dinosaurium, whose lavishly illustrated creatures set a high bench mark for illustrated non-fiction. This tome, exploring the Solar System, is no less delightful or comprehensive, and maintains the sophisticated authoritative tone of the rest of the series.

Written by Raman Prinja, a Professor of Astrophysics at UCL, the book aims to go further than many space information books for children, starting with an explanation of radiation and light and traversing through the history of astronomy before navigating the Solar System, star life cycles and black holes. The end of the book takes in the incomprehensibility of huge superclusters and Universe expansion.

To accompany these mind-bogging theories, facts and wonders, Wormell’s power of intricate and detailed illustration has been utilised to its full extent. The detailed drawings of telescopes are like dioramas on the page, his intricate etchings of solar flares and coronal loops feel almost three-dimensional in their depiction. This is not an easy book – there is science galore and difficult concepts, but there is a handsome clarity to the text and a sense of wonder that imbues the science behind the illustrations. There’s also some wonderful prose writing:

“They [black holes] can’t be seen, but if a human got too close to one, they would be sucked in by its gravitational pull, stretched out like spaghetti and incinerated in a wall of fire!”

For space fans and astronomy maestros this is one outsized book they’ll yearn to devour. 8+ years and beyond. Explore the museum here.

the space trainThe Space Train by Maudie-Powell Tuck, illustrated by Karl James Mountford

I’ve added a picture book to my ‘skies’ blogpost because often the information and facts we absorb on a topic lead us to daydream about our own or others’ adventures in that area. And because quite often, even though a children’s ‘knowledge’ topic at school may revolve around learning facts, they will often spark off into a piece of creative writing, and this picture book ticks all the boxes in providing educational content, inspiration, imagination and energy. The Space Train is a wonderful lift-the-flap adventure about a boy and his grandma in the future and their attempts to rebuild the space train – a vehicle that propels through space faster than a rocket.

Not only is this a fun and cheeky adventure, but it is richly illustrated with a bold colour palette and a super eye for detail. There are hidden flaps and holes to peek through, and a thrilling mind-whirling combination of ‘sciencey’ words, make-believe and the power of grit and determination, as well as a wonderful relationship between grandparent and child. When Jakob and Granny attempt to fix the old space train, they have to put together the thrusters and combustion chamber by riveting and welding. But there’s intergalactic imagination too – with a Toolbot, a robot chicken, an intergalactic buffet car, an observation deck and much much more. This is an imagined future universe of fun and adventure, but complete with a modern, energetic engineer Granny and brilliantly drawn full page illustrations of what it might be like to live in a future space station. Let your imagination soar here.

Armistice Day

On the eleventh hour, of the eleventh day, of the eleventh month. We know the historical facts about the First World War and we understand the remembrance at Armistice Day, but 100 years on, how do we not only keep the memory of it alive, but also make it relevant for today’s children. Two very different stories bring the topic to fresh generations by using issues that are forefront in the minds now, to illuminate how those same issues were a part of society then. It’s often said we’re living in a time of identity politics, and these two books both highlight individual identity within the context of the First World War.

white featherWhite Feather by Catherine and David MacPhail
This powerful tale is about how we remember somebody after they have died. The war is over, and everyone is celebrating, except Tony who is still mourning his brother Charlie who never returned from no man’s land. What’s more, Tony is given a white feather during the Armistice, a sign that his brother is remembered as a coward – executed for running away from Frontline service. Tony doesn’t believe that his brother was a coward, and sets out to find the truth, so that he can remember his brother – and that his brother can be correctly identified as a brave soldier.

Just as now, with first-hand recollection gone, the truth about the First World War may seem more misty, more distant. It’s important that we understand the facts of what happened, but also that we see through poetry or novels the individual’s experience, so that we can better empathise with the realities of that time. White Feather is about the search for truth – told as half a mystery and half a ghost story in a quest to uncover what really happened on the Front Line. With sympathetic characters, this novella provides a great talking point for how we understand the horrors of the time, as well as the importance of an individual’s identity, even after death. You can buy it here.

 

respect walter tullRespect: The Walter Tull Story by Michaela Morgan, with illustrations by Karen Donnelly
Another short novel, this time based on the true story of a First World War hero, pulls in today’s children for two reasons – firstly it’s again about identity – Walter Tull was a black man and suffered from prejudice because of this, and secondly because it ties football to the First World War, pulling in a raft of children who may be reluctant readers. In fact, even though this was first published in 2005, there is still a dearth of books for primary schools with strong black role models, and this fits the bill nicely.

Although Morgan has fictionalised Tull’s story, she has used a mixture of illustrations and photographs to highlight events, with a map too, so that a reader can see the primary sources behind the story. Tull was the first ever black professional footballer, and also the first black officer in the British Army, and his story is fascinating; one of great courage and resilience. You can buy it here.

You may also want to read about Armistice Runner by Tom Palmer here. All books published by Barrington Stoke, specialist publishers for reluctant and dyslexic readers.