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Animal Picture Books

There seems to be a glut of super-talented authors and illustrators bringing a range of stories to life this summer in picture books. It’s hard to choose when there are so many good books. Themed on animals, and with some clear references to great picture books of the past, I’ve narrowed it down to seven.

a mouse called julianA Mouse Called Julian by Joe Todd-Stanton
Since the stunning views of Epping Forest inspired the illustrative detail in Jill Barklem’s Brambly Hedge series, a fascination with underground burrows and attention to detail has pervaded children’s illustration. Todd-Stanton’s new picture book is also about a mouse and his burrow, illustrated to near-perfection with its perspective on size – the giant matchsticks, safety pen and chiselled pencils. And as the perspective widens outside Julian’s burrow, the picturebook excels.

Julian avoids other animals, but when a fox tries to sneak into his burrow, it gets stuck in the front door. At first horror strikes both animals, but gradually a mutual friendship grows.

This plot idea may be borrowed from Winnie-the-Pooh, but Todd-Stanton’s clever vignettes of Julian on his everyday travails, through burrow and fields, plays on the reader’s expectations of country life, predator and prey. Julian is seen walking with a stick of blueberries across his shoulder, in the pose of Dick Whittington with his bindle stick. The illustrations open out to full page little animal terror, as the reader sees the eye of the fox, huge against the leaves and dandelions, which themselves tower over Julian.

This is a tale, in the end, about perspective. Perspective of size, of danger, but also of companionship and the loyalty of friendship. There are unexpected twists, a sublime amount of suspense for the young reader, and simply exquisite illustrations. A gentle rhythm to the short text amplifies the satisfactory ending. Exquisite. You can buy it here.

in the swamp by the light of the moonIn the Swamp by the Light of the Moon by Frann Preston-Gannon
More borrowing from the children’s literature cannon in this paean to The Owl and the Pussycat by Edward Lear, as Preston-Gannon uses the same rhythm to tell her tale of a frog and his orchestra of animals. Singing to himself in the swamp, his song feels incomplete until the other animals join in. It is only at the end, when even the smallest voice is heard, that the music sounds right.

With collage illustrations highlighting the different textures and bold colours of the swamp, from the flora at the front of the picture to the depth of water and colourful fish, Preston-Gannon shows an intense attention to detail, making the scene feel like the liveliest and most comfortable swamp – the frog’s legs dip into the water, the mice sing with every whisker and flick of tail.

In the end, the reader discovers that it is only with the complementary sounds of all the creatures that the song sounds good – a promotion of inclusivity, but particularly of the little bug – the smallest voice of all – showing that there must be space for the extroverts to listen to the introverts and let them in.

Young readers will find the little bug on every page, and delight in her final ‘brightness’ of song. Lyrical, accessible and bright. You can buy it here.

ducktective quack
Ducktective Quack and the Cake Crime Wave by Claire Freedman and Mike Byrne
Humour and detective skills galore in this wonderful caper by the author of Aliens Love Underpants. Someone is stealing all the cakes in town, and together with Ducktective Quack, the reader needs to work out who it is. In rhyming text, and with successful word play (‘fowl play’ at the police station), the book takes the reader through a humorous investigation of the town, from the crime scene to the portraits of suspects, questioning and solution. A yellow post-it on each page encourages the reader to find clues.

But it is the clever rhyming and busy illustrations that win an audience. A perfect read-aloud, with cute messages about sugary foods being bad for teeth and health, the illustrations of the different animals and their professional lives will make any reader chuckle, even the grownups. Look out for the incongruities too – an old-fashioned telephone, an American mailbox, an electric toothbrush, a takeaway coffee cup.

Timeless and placeless, this is one sugary treat. You can buy it here.

i am a tiger
I Am a Tiger by Karl Newson and Ross Collins
Say something with enough conviction and people will believe you? A tale for our times indeed. This bold, simple picturebook, again with a starring role for a mouse, shows that with enough confidence you can be anything you want to be. Mouse believes itself to be a tiger, and convinces others of this ‘fact’ by way of a series of strong(ish) arguments and behaviours. When a real tiger comes along, mouse has to convince tiger that the tiger himself is a mouse, before explaining what all the other animals are (with some witty surprises).

This is an excellent book, highlighting confidence, truth and debate, all the while managing to amuse. Phenomenal facial expressions take this book to another level. You can buy it here.

my dog mouse
My Dog Mouse by Eva Lindstrom
Old-school illustrations in this translated-from-Swedish slowly paced gentle book about friendship and ownership. There’s a special attention and a special relationship between the unnamed narrator who is taking an old dog for a walk, illuminated in the poetic language of the text ‘ears flap like flags’, ears that are ‘as thin as pancakes’, but mainly in the soft charming shaded illustrations that move as slowly as the child moves in his slow walk, ‘Step, pause, step pause.’

There’s a longing and poignancy to the text, a kind of nostalgia for the enduring time of childhood, and a wry sadness as the narrator proclaims that they wished the dog belonged to them, in beautiful contrast to the title of the story. Will leave children pondering. You can buy it here.

little bear's spring
Little Bear’s Spring by Elli Woollard and Briony May Smith
There is a great depth of understanding of nature in May Smith’s illustrations throughout her picture book output, and this is different only in that it concentrates on the real natural world rather than fairies. Little Bear is coming out of hibernation and Woollard and May Smith track his slow awareness of the new world and the change from winter to spring as he learns whom to trust and whom to befriend.

The use of light to show the sunshine and the passing of the days, shadows cast, and patches illuminated, as well as the textures of the landscape; tree bark, animal fur, rippling streams is magical, and particularly, of course, the double page spread of first blossoming flowers – a carpet of colour and sensory delight. The story is gently told with a good mix of descriptive vocabulary and character-driven dialogue all told in rhyme. You can buy it here.

big cat
Big Cat by Emma Lazell
A case of mistaken identity, a stylistic throwback nostalgia to the 1970s, and an acknowledgement of great picture books from the past combine in this zany intergenerational story book. Isobel and her grandma find a cat in the garden – a big cat – whilst looking for grandma’s glasses. He moves in, but like another well-known big cat, eats a lot of food. When grandma finally finds her glasses, she’s in for quite a surprise.

With a messy, scatty illustrative style, busy chaotic scenes, and a wonderful chattiness in the text, there is a huge amount of fun to discover in this lively picture book. Look at the other cats protesting, Grandma attempting to text on her mobile phone, and her overloaded kitchen (how many mugs does one person need?) A Big amount of fun. You can buy it here.

Refugee Week Books

Refugee Week starts this week, with the slogan ‘Different Pasts, Shared Future’. It’s a theme well worth bearing in mind in our current climate, especially if you read this article in The Observer from 9th June, which pointed to the increased number of war refugees, and the growing threat of climate change that will result (and already is) in an increased number of climate migrants.

One hopes that the next generation will use their passion and skills to solve some of these issues, be it understanding different political, ethnic and religious tensions, or coping with the displacement of people due to changing climate. Even, one hopes, to reverse some of these changes, but ultimately to accept the global movement of people.

Teaching tolerance starts young. Two picture books that provoke thought and understanding about accepting others’ differences, and learning to embrace others in new communities, are aimed at the very young – The Suitcase by Chris Naylor-Ballesteros, and Quill Soup by Alan Durant and Dale Blankenaar.

migrationsBut firstly, there is the striking little Migrations: Open Hearts Open Borders with an introduction by Shaun Tan. This postcard sized-book is a selection of illustrations from children’s book illustrators around the world. The illustrators submitted images for a travelling exhibition (visiting London, Worcester, South Africa, Korea), to express support for human migrants. Each illustrator submitted an illustration of a bird on a postcard, and a message on the reverse.

The book highlights the intense difference in style between children’s illustrators – from those well-known in this country, such as Chris Riddell and Petr Horacek, to the lesser-known Marija Prelog from Slovenia. She has etched a beautiful red-breasted bullfinch, whose claws and facial expression look it to be in some kind of distress – the ‘clouds’ in the sky resembling shadowy human figures that might be swimming or struggling through the air. It’s a powerful arresting image. Myungae Lee from Korea has colourfully crafted birds as a series of balloons held by people on the ground with their arms raised – turning the postcard vertically to use the space.

Divided into themes: Departures, Long Journeys, Arrivals, and Hope for the Future, the book is both inspirational and thought-provoking. Migration, of course, is tied up with ideas of journey, destination, flight and discovery – just like children’s fiction.

And also like children’s fiction, it has hope pulling the strands of the journey together, a dream of something better. Each journey and illustration is an individual act, but very much part of a whole. The idea – to have to leave one community but to join or form another community in a better, safer place.

You can buy it here.

The idea of community is threaded through the two picture books – both asking for acts of kindness in welcoming strangers.

the suitcaseThe Suitcase by Chris Naylor-Ballesteros is the story of a funny little creature who arrives in the book after trekking over quite a jaggedy mountain, pulling a suitcase.

He looks pretty fed up and tired. The animals at his destination ask him what’s inside his case, but they know he’s fibbing when he explains that as well as a teacup, there is a table and chairs, a house and more. When the stranger curls up and goes to sleep, weary and vulnerable, the other animals break into the suitcase to sate their curiosity.

The inherent message is making amends for doing something wrong, welcoming a stranger, and gaining an understanding of what that stranger has been through. There is an intense lesson of empathy here, which children will gain through the osmosis of reading.

The arrival of the creature at the destination is illustrated with pages of simple colours in a landscape of mainly white space. But the journey is depicted by the landscape dominating the page – from the high mountain to an abundance of waves that threatens to drown the book. A struggle before final acceptance.

Effective in its simplicity. You can buy it here.

quill soup

There’s an old folk tale called Stone Soup, shared commonly in European communities (although it has other global variations) in which a hungry stranger tries to convince the townspeople to share their small morsels of food with him, and in the end makes a meal for the whole community. Sharing is best – breaking bread with strangers who become new friends.

This is the essence of the story in Quill Soup by Alan Durant, illustrated by Dale Blankenaar, but in this retelling the stranger is a porcupine called Noko, and the story has been replanted to Africa – the village populated by an array of African animals including meerkats and monkeys. The style is unique – vivid colours dominating each page, intricate patterns and silhouettes, in active, highly populated scenes, so that a child is almost seeking the animals in the jungle – picking out their shapes and eyes in a teeming patterned landscape.

An excellent retelling that not only teaches about welcoming strangers and sharing resources, but for a Western readership, it shows cultural diversity in the actual design of the book. You can buy it here.

Father’s Day 2019

It’s Father’s Day today. Apparently consumers spend half as much on Father’s Day as they do on Mother’s Day. (Global Data Retail Analysis). Whether this is because consumers regard fathers as less important, or there are fewer of them, who knows. If we look to children’s books, the traditional classics tend to show women as the primary caregivers – The Tiger Who Came to Tea, Where the Wild Things Are, The Cat in the Hat. I’d argue that although fatherhood has come a long way, it’s often the woman who is still the default parent, the ‘emergency contact’ in heterosexual relationships. However, the children’s book world is changing things, and here are two picture books that neatly celebrate the father/child relationship.

the way to treasure islandThe Way to Treasure Island by Lizzy Stewart
The compelling hook of this picture book is not so much the riff on ‘Treasure Island’, that trope of children’s literature that presents an adventure and a quest for treasure, but instead it is the growing and tender relationship between the characters of Matilda and her father (seen on the front cover in their boat). Introduced Roald Dahl style: ‘This is Matilda, and this is Matilda’s dad’ the reader learns that although they have a very close relationship, they are very different types of people. (As the obsessively tidy mother of a messy daughter, empathy is easy here).

Nicely turning things around and playing with the reader’s expectations, here the child is neat and tidy, the Dad is depicted as messy and noisy. Matilda is beautifully drawn – she has a distinct personality from the beginning – her big red glasses a focus of her face, her eyebrows a mirror of her Dad’s, and the simple way they are drawn executes her mood wonderfully.

From the beach the pair set sail to follow their map to get the treasure. The journey is as important as the destination here, the quest being about the discovery of how wonderful the natural world is. The endpapers mirror this with their depiction of a shoal of fish, and some of the most splendid, colourful, detailed and interesting full page illustrations in the book are the depictions of nature – the underwater vista, the flora and fauna on the island. For those who have sampled Lizzy Stewart’s first book, There’s a Tiger in the Garden, some of the more jungley scenes will ring familiar.

Of course, in the end it is the combined strengths of the pair, their different skills and personalities, that enable Matilda and her dad to find the treasure. The treasure, of course, is not monetary – it is in fact the natural beauty surrounding them – this ‘discovery’ page is a glorious celebration of the natural world’s colour, and the reader will admire the illustrator’s ability to depict the moment of discovery and achievement.

A glorious book, vibrant with story, messages and illustrations, and a true celebration of enjoying the journey one’s on with the people one loves. Exemplary. You can buy it here.

raj and best holiday everRaj and the Best Holiday Ever by Seb Braun
Another Raj and Dad adventure book, following earlier picture book Raj and the Best Day Ever, takes a familiar theme of the Dad wanting to prove that he can really treat his son to a fantastic day, but admitting near the end that a bit of help would come in handy.

I admit that camping isn’t my thing, but Braun depicts the anticipation of a camping holiday beautifully, even the long journey with petrol stops is portrayed with humour, but it is the arrival at the campsite that makes it most appealing. Each tent a different colour against the blue/black background of night-time, and illustrated as if lit from within by torchlight. Raj and his Dad take a birds’ eye view of the campground from a high point, and it is indeed a high point in the picture book.

There are some clichéd moments to follow – Dad finds it hard to put the tent up, and to cook breakfast, he loses a paddle canoeing, takes an ambitious trek with a tired child, all the while refusing help from the annoyingly smug family of bears in the adjacent tent – who have clearly achieved camping perfection.

The ending is as expected – they join company with the bears for a jolly singsong round the campfire, and of course it’s the beginning of a beautiful friendship and the end of the ‘best holiday ever’. Raj and his father are depicted as tigers, and other anthropomorphised creatures populate the landscape, in spreads that are packed with things to find – a pig paragliding, a donkey backpacking, the frog taking a dive, not to mentione concerned-looking fish. There is humour throughout, look out for the pile of books on the title page, including one entitled ‘Managing Expectations’.

A heart-warming story, bound to be a ‘best book ever’ for some youngsters on Father’s Day. You can buy it here.

Detective Geniuses: Introducing Sophie Johnson

sophie johnson detective geniusWhat do you want to be when you grow up? It’s a perennial question asked of youngsters, and Sophie Johnson is the most winning picture book character to help answer it.

In her first foray into the book world, she was a ‘unicorn expert’, but now she is trying her hand at detecting.

In the Sophie Johnson picture books by Morag Hood, illustrated by Ella Okstad, (strapline: Meet Sophie Johnson: outgoing, optimistic and oblivious), there is a perfect match of text and picture, the two working harmoniously to give a greater whole. Indeed, despite Sophie’s bragging of her expertise in her chosen career, the pictures give a slightly different perspective.

That doesn’t detract from Sophie Johnson’s awesomeness. In the latest book, Sophie Johnson: Detective Genius, she is enthusiastically looking for the thief who has stolen Lion’s tale. She doesn’t have the time to train her assistant, Bella the dog. But maybe Bella doesn’t need as much training as Sophie thinks.

A riotous, clever, and thoroughly enjoyable picture book, I fell for Sophie as soon as I saw her. Her character’s personality, oozing warmth and exuberance, is infectious. The zesty conversational prose instantly sucks in the reader, and the illustrations are endearing, vibrant, colourful, and full of familiar domestic details, as well as wit and energy.

Here, author Morag Hood gives us Sophie’s favourite detectives:

Top 5 Detective heroes:

My name is Sophie Johnson and these are my top 5 Greatest Detective Geniuses Ever in the Whole World (apart from me).

Sherlock Holmes (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle)

People always call him a ‘classic’ detective (which I think is probably just a nice way of saying he is really quite old now) but Sherlock is a genius just like me. He can solve any mystery and he doesn’t let silly things like manners get in the way of him cracking a case. He also has a hat which looks a bit like mine so he must be pretty clever

Basil The Great Mouse Detective (Disney)

In some ways Basil is just a smaller, mousier version of Sherlock Holmes, but I think he has a lot more fun. He also has a snazzy outfit and a dog assistant just like me. Although his assistant is called Toby and he does actually help a little bit, unlike my assistant Bella who just barks at things.

Hercule Poirot (Agatha Christie)

This man does have a very funny moustache, but Poirot is actually quite good at solving cases most of the time. He can spend a bit too much time thinking rather than doing, but we can probably forgive him for that because he did live ages ago.

Daisy Wells and Hazel Wong (Murder Most Unladylike books by Robin Stevens)

Finally, a detective with a good assistant! Although actually I think they are probably just joint Detective Geniuses. They prove that girls like me are even better than grown ups at crime solving. I’m sure I will solve all kinds of mysteries once I am at school.

Dr Mark Sloan (Diagnosis Murder)

He is a detective and a doctor and he sometimes wears roller skates and sings.

With thanks to Morag Hood for letting us read Sophie’s detective choices, and S&S UK for the review copy. Sophie Johnson: Detective Genius by Morag Hood and Ella Okstad is published by Simon and Schuster and is available to buy here. I suggest you do!

Stand With Anne

anne frankOne of the most frequently asked questions of me is ‘what age should my child be to read The Diary of Anne Frank’? To which there is no correct answer because every child develops at their own rate, in terms of reading level, emotional intelligence, and contextual awareness. There is no age too early to introduce the idea of a girl called Anne who is set apart because she is different – this is something children may encounter as young as nursery age. (Early years schoolchildren do not tend to notice race or religion, but prejudices can take hold, and children may feel set apart or left out and viewed as different simply because they have a snotty nose or a different colour skin). However even adults can find it hard to understand the Holocaust.

As adult ‘gatekeepers’ it is worth bearing in mind that primary school children may find the actual diaries of Anne Frank hard going. They are intimate in the extreme, they tell the innermost thoughts of a teenager, and they don’t hold back – Anne had little to distract her within the confines of her hiding place – and so her written thoughts were her comfort. It’s worth bearing in mind that initially Anne wrote free form, but after a while she edited and amended the entries, hoping that it would be published.

Tomorrow, June 12th, 2019, Anne Frank would have been 90 years old had she survived. Her memory lives on though, and to celebrate her contribution to literature, education, social history and of course to make sure that the Holocaust is never forgotten, I want to share with you a book that you can give to a younger child in order for them to understand who Anne Frank was. Little Guides to Great Lives is a well-established series now, but this past April they published: Anne Frank by Isabel Thomas, illustrations by Paola Escobar.

The book explains with good simplicity and brevity the context of the world in which Anne lived before delving into the details, and it is this simplicity that helps to situate Anne within a framework that younger children can understand. For most of them, comprehending that Anne Frank died as one of six million Jews put to death by the Nazis is hard, because at primary school they are still figuring out place value – and how can you reconcile such a large figure when even 1000’s are hard to deal with, let alone the concept of death, and murder.

The text doesn’t shy away from the bare facts – it explains that the Nazis were trying to ‘wipe out all Jews living in Europe,’ among others, and so Anne had to go into hiding.

But to help the younger child try to understand Anne and to feel akin with her, there are some poignant and lovely touches in the book. We get to know her as a child first: she looks after her cat, eats ice cream, plans her next birthday – and in a speech bubble the illustration shows Anne riding her bike, and saying ‘Just like you, I was excited about the future.’ This is not about something far away, confined to history, in another world. This is relatable to the here and now. Once we understand Anne the person, we can begin to understand the immensity of what happened to her, the persecution around her, and how if it affected just one person in this way, maybe we can zoom out from the intimacy and try to understand the enormity of what happened to all those millions of people.

When Anne’s family is forced into hiding, the book highlights Anne’s frustration, showing a cutaway diagram of the cramped space, and the number of people sharing it, as well as pointing out Anne’s daily routine and all the times she had to be quiet so as not to be discovered. Looking at 13 year old girls around me, this is hard to imagine.

The book is fairly long at 64 pages, but is good at showing Anne’s extensive creativity, her intelligence, and the tension within the hiding place, as well as explaining all the context of Nazi rule outside the apartment. It also doesn’t hide the truth of what happened in the end, not just to Anne but to her family, and to all the people on that same train to Auschwitz – half of whom were immediately put to death on arrival.

This is one of the more insightful books for younger readers on the Holocaust. It deals with the reality of the topic with straightforward simple prose, and clever, interesting illustrations that help to illuminate the very difficult topic that this is. It even gives a simple background as to why the German people believed Nazi propaganda about the Jewish people, and explores the transition of prisons to concentration camps to places of execution.

With parental guidance, this is a good book to disseminate the background to Anne’s life, the reason for the diary, and most importantly the motivation as to why we all need to keep reading it and reminding ourselves of what Anne went through:

“Anne’s diary has helped generations of people to understand the impact of war on human beings. It reminds us that the things we have in common are far more important than what makes us different. Read Anne’s diary and let her inspire you to make the world a better place!”

Perhaps by remembering Anne, we can practise tolerance of those who have a different culture, race, or religion, and not use them as scapegoats.

With a timeline and glossary, this is both an excellent companion to the diary itself, and a good precursor. Illustrated throughout in two-tone. #NeverForget

You can buy a copy here.

Finding the Dugong Inside You: An Empathy Day post by Candy Gourlay

empathy dayEmpathy Day was founded in 2017 by not-for-profit Empathy Lab. This year it falls on 11 June. Using research that shows empathy is a skill we can learn, it aims to inspire and promote empathy.

And where better to start than with reading, particularly children’s books.

As founder Miranda McKearney OBE says: “Reading helps young minds to imagine lives beyond their own…Books are scientifically proven to help us develop empathy. 

This year, author Candy Gourlay has explained what empathy means to her for MinervaReads:

candy gourlay

Ten years ago my debut novel Tall Story was published. It is the story of two siblings who have never met, one in the Philippines and one in London,  separated by years of failed visa applications.

I filled Tall Story with Filipino characters, sewing Filipino folk tales and quirks into the narrative, including the national passion for basketball despite our diminutive stature.

I also infused Tall Story with loneliness – my loneliness: having left my family behind in the Philippines to start a new life in London, in the same way that my hero Bernardo is left behind when his mum becomes a nurse in London.

It is not a loneliness unique to me.  For the past 20 years, my country has been experiencing a migration phenomenon. Eleven percent of our population leave home every year to work abroad.

So imagine my surprise when my English husband’s uncle – a former Royal Marine – said that he felt Bernardo’s story was like his own.

Uncle Ian had spent most of his childhood at boarding school while his parents had worked overseas. Several times, when his parents had visited him at boarding school, he had changed so much they had failed to recognise him.

Uncle Ian had found echoes of himself in a left-behind Filipino boy.

Echoes

“Empathy is about finding echoes of another person in yourself.” the novelist Mohsin Hamid said, in an interview.

Hamid was talking about writing, not reading.

#ReadforEmpathy may be today’s hashtag … but it might as well be #WriteforEmpathy because to write a book that inspires empathy requires much empathy from the author herself.

is it a mermaid
The Dugong in Me

EmpathyLab, the empathy, literature and social action programme for four to 11 year olds, has compiled a Read for Empathy list of 45 diverse books for 2019.

This includes Is It a Mermaid?, written by me with achingly beautiful illustrations by Francesca Chessa, and nominated for the Kate Greenaway Medal.

Is It a Mermaid? is about a dugong (sea cow) who declares that she is a mermaid despite the objections of a little boy named Benji. When I read this aloud, the comedy of the situation has the children hooting and laughing. How can this fat, grey sea creature even begin to look like a mermaid?

But midway through the story, Benji goes too far and the dugong bursts into tears. As I read, I am always amazed by my audience’s reaction. The children’s faces become serious and sad as they realise that, like Benji, they have been unkind.

The moment never fails to move me. Because that dugong who thinks she is a mermaid? She is full of echoes of my own experiences:

That time when my sister and I were playing at fashion modelling and an aunt fell about laughing. “Oh she’ll never be a model, she’s too fat!”

That time I said I was trying to become a children’s author and an acquaintance laughed scornfully saying, “Not another one! Too many people think they can become authors!”

That time when I was left out of a game by some cousins, claiming, “Only boys can play this!”

Better People

“The more we read the more empathy we show to our fellow human beings,” the literary agent Jonny Geller declared in his TedxTalk What Makes a Bestseller?, citing research that makes a connection between fiction and increased empathy. “Reading makes us better people.”

The 11th of June is Empathy Day and book lovers (readers and makers alike) will be banding together to create a #ReadingforEmpathy sonic boom, with chat and book recommendations. Join us in showing how books can transform readers.

Reading makes us better people.  Let’s make it happen.

With thanks to Candy Gourlay for her guest post. To read my review of her latest novel, Bone Talk, click here. To buy Is It a Mermaid click here, and you can watch the book trailer here.

A Wonderful World

its your world nowPart address, part instructional, but above all picture book, It’s Your World Now! by Barry Falls is an insight into what happens when a person becomes a parent. Their eyes are opened to the wonder of the world and its possibilities for their child, but also perhaps to the pitfalls and dangers.

In a swooping, vibrant, non-patronising way, Falls has poured these feelings into a picture book, and both celebrated the world itself and the potential of the individual within it. 

The rhyming text gives lessons to the child, just three. That the world is full of wonders, that sometimes things won’t go your way, and that the love of the parent is everlasting. With collage-style illustrations, partly reminiscent of Oliver Jeffers, a reader will be as enthralled with the mass of detail depicted as the careful positioning of the text – interspersing pictures, hanging on planets, but also set on a blank page. Doubts creep in – there is no certainty, except for parental love.

For any child this will be a treasure trove of discovery, for parents a partly whimsical partly true depiction of how they feel.

Here, Barry Falls explores The Challenge of Making Something Meaningful: 

barry fallsI’ve always loved the idea of making picture books for young children.

The freedom that they provide as a storyteller and image maker has always been hugely appealing to me. I can hardly think of another format that allows for such an intense and seamless integration of words, pictures, ideas and story. I say intense because, well, they’re short… but a good picture book bursts with flavour. Most picture books can be read in a few minutes, but if they’re made with real passion and love, they can provide years of joyous succour to the little hands and little minds that encounter them.

Making It’s Your World Now! was such a learning experience for me, but also a pretty emotional one. The origin of the story was a desire to give something meaningful to my baby daughter, who was only about a year old when I started working on the text. I think that’s why it ended up being quite an expansive text; it was an attempt to make really big feelings into something with some shape and a meaning that we can both grow into as we read it together. As a parent of three kids myself, I spend a lot of time reading children’s books, and I always enjoy it more when I feel like the text speaks to me in some way. In that regard, I really hope that the life lessons that are described in the book are something that parents who read the book to their kids will identify with.

As an illustrator, I’m always tempted to dive right into the visual side of any book that I’m working on, but something that I’ve learned over the course of the last couple of years is that getting the text right first is key. I love to write in rhyme, and one of the things that I love about it is that it leaves no room for error. You have to get the meter and the rhythm of the words to work perfectly together, otherwise the joy of the rhyme completely disappears. As someone who is an illustrator first and foremost, I found this really helpful as it forced me to really put the hours into the text so that I knew that it really worked before I even picked up a pencil.

Once I had my text to the stage where I was happy with it – with the help of a patient and insightful editor of course! – I was able to focus on the images. In some ways this was the easy bit. After years of developing my style as an illustrator, it is second nature for me to build pictures to go along with stories, but the whole process feels very different when it’s your own story. The possibilities are endless, and the creative freedom can be a little overwhelming. Added to that, I don’t usually make images for young children, so building the visual style of It’s Your World Now! involved a LOT of trial and error, especially when it came to rendering the characters that appear throughout the book.

A good example of how I work to build an image, and particularly within It’s Your World Now!, is the cover of the book. The big sycamore tree on the cover is a microcosm of the book itself – it bursts with life and introduces readers to the visual style and preoccupations of the story. The text includes abundant references to the many things that there are in the world, and the joy to be had in exploring them, so it feels right to me that the visual style of the book should be joyfully busy.

I’ve always treated my images as collages – they don’t have an overt cut’n’paste feel like a lot of classic collages, but essentially that’s what they are. I’ve always loved the work of Peter Blake, so he is an inspiration to me – not just in the busyness of his images, but in the warm, nostalgic palettes he works with. Another huge influence is Henry Darger, an outsider artist who built complex scenes using found images torn from children’s colouring books and layered into heartbreaking, expansive vistas.

As for me, I start each spread with a rough sketch, which I use as a very loose starting point. Everything is then created individually – the plants, the animals, the characters, the objects – and then placed into context with one another in Photoshop. Some are drawn, some are painted, some are photographed and manipulated digitally. This allows me to play with scale and proportion, and to clash colours and textures in fun and visually provocative ways that aren’t always anticipated in the sketches. In the old days this would have involved an awful lot of photocopying, cutting and gluing, but now working digitally makes it so much more immediate.

At times, the improvisational nature of creating the artwork feels a bit like playing music, and is very different from the discipline and constant rewriting of the text. One of my colleagues said that the artwork of the book was quite trippy, which, as a Grateful Dead fan, I decided to take as a compliment.

Working on, and completing, my first picture book, was certainly a trip for me. And now that I’ve taken it once, I hope to get the chance to take many trips in the future. Hopefully the readers of It’s Your World Now! will hop on board with me.

With thanks to Barry Falls, and Pavilion Children’s Books for the review copy. It’s Your World Now! by Barry Falls is published by Pavilion Children’s Books, £6.99 paperback and is available here.

Playing with Time and Nature

charlie noonI’ve long been an admirer of Christopher Edge’s novels. In his latest series of books, (connected by theme, but completely stand-alone stories), he takes a scientific concept and writes a children’s novel around it. It started with The Many Worlds of Albie Bright, which took Schrodinger’s Theory or the many worlds theory, and ran with it. The Jamie Drake Equation was about space travel, although for me it resonated most heartbreakingly with its depiction of an absent father. The Infinite Lives of Maisie Day was quite devastating, in that it investigated relativity, virtual reality and black holes, but mainly sibling relationships, and was both quite frightening and then impossibly sad. The magic of the stories is that although the reader subconsciously absorbs the big scientific ideas, they are also stung by the supreme emotion and fallibility of human relationships, as well as seeing hope for the future.

This time, in The Longest Night of Charlie Noon, Christopher Edge has taken his theme and created an impossible tale, a masterpiece of keeping the reader guessing and turning things upside down and inside out until at the end the reader realises that time has flown…

The Longest Night of Charlie Noon is ostensibly about three children who get lost in the woods one evening after school. Edge wonderfully juxtaposes town and country here, as Charlie has moved from London to the country, and experiences the woods in a different way from the other children. There are lush descriptions of wildflowers, and in particular, the different sounds of the birds, and the trees and the lights and shadows that are cast in different areas of the wood.

There’s also a legend about Old Crony, a monster maybe, who lives in the heart of the woods, and who eats children. Charlie and two friends are looking to solve some cryptic puzzles that have been left in the wood, but when night falls they find themselves lost, or maybe trapped. Time plays tricks on them, as Edge explores the concept of time, and how we experience it. There are loops and hurdles for the reader as well as the children as we read a series of scenes that play with our sense of perception.

Edge again cleverly weaves together science and creative thought, nature and story, to stimulate further thought and discussion after reading, but also imparts a huge amount of knowledge. Charlie Noon is an immersive story with non-stop twists and turns, gives each child a real sense of character, and also provides a wonderful key to seeing not only the power of nature, but how stories can stimulate intellectual curiosity and thought.

Here, Christopher Edge explores the inspiration behind the novel, Brendon Chase by ‘BB’, about three boys who run away from home and live wild in the woods:

“When we are young all our impressions are much clearer and more vivid than when we are middle-aged.”

So reads the opening line of The Pegasus Book of the Countryside written by ‘B B’, the pseudonym used by the author, illustrator and naturalist Denys Watkins-Pitchford.

First published in 1964, B B goes on to bemoan how when children are at the most receptive age to enjoy the wonders to be found in the countryside, they are forced to stay indoor for lessons at school, showing that concerns about the lack of nature in children’s lives isn’t a wholly modern phenomenon.

However, in recent times, the role that nature plays in children lives has been brought into sharp focus through books such as The Lost Words by Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris, which have sought to rewild children’s vocabularies and reconnect them with the natural world, and also the work of the inspirational climate activist Greta Thunberg, a Swedish schoolgirl whose protests highlight a younger generation’s deep concern for the environment, and how we need to act now to save nature.

Education is about understanding the world around us, so learning about the natural world should be at the heart of the school curriculum. From forest schools to fiction, through subjects like science, art, English and geography, we can rewild children’s education in a way that helps them to understand the fragile wonders that can be found in the natural world, and help give them the heart to defend these wild places.

Reading a novel changes your brain and I hope in the pages of The Longest Night of Charlie Noon young readers might find glimpses of the wild mysteries that fed my imagination, and find inspiration to explore the wild places around them and make their own adventures there.

To end this piece, I’ll borrow the closing words of The Pegasus Book of the Countryside, where B B writes of how reading about nature, ‘remains inside you and adds a richness to life which is with you until your life’s end.’ Let’s give our children the riches they all deserve.

With thanks to Christopher Edge. The Longest Night of Charlie Noon is published by Nosy Crow on 6th June, and you can buy it here. With thanks to Nosy Crow for the review proof, and also the sublime finished copy, cover artwork by Matt Saunders. 

Football Feats

the unlucky elevenThis weekend is the Champion’s League Final. If you know me in real life, or even virtually, you’ll have an inkling that this is a big weekend for me (clue: I’m a Spurs fan).

But what about the little games that go on up and down the country, in a public park, or someone’s back garden? What about the children who aren’t terrifically talented at football, but still enjoy a dribble with a ball, or even just a good read?

The Unlucky Eleven by Phil Earle, illustrated by Steve May, wonderfully combines love for the beautiful game with a great dose of sports’ superstition in this Little Gem reader that’s super readable and designed with colour illustrations throughout. Not every pitch can be as smoothly laid as that at the Wanda Metropolitano Stadium in Madrid, and the story begins with a bad bobble on the pitch for Stanley and his Saints team. But it turns out, they’ve had a bad run all season, with unfortunate decisions, own goals and injuries (this last is beginning to sound more like the Spurs team)!

But then, one of the team, (and this is a glorious mixed-gender team, just as the one I watched in a local game last week), suggests that the Saints might be cursed. Now they have to find out exactly what is cursed (is it the kit?), and how to rid their team of it. Of course, in the end, it’s not a curse they need to overcome, but their own lack of confidence.

This is a smart, funny read with exuberant active illustrations to match the fast witty text. For ages 5-8 years. You can buy it here.

kickaroundI’m also a huge fan of football magazines.

Often grabbing the reluctant readers in the school, periodicals are a chance for them to dip in, snatch some new knowledge and vocabulary, and still find time to play sport in the playground. Kickaround is aimed at ages 7-13 years and is a great stepping stone before teenagers reach for the newspapers’ sports pages. Of course there are snippets of news, full page pictures of heroes, team and match profiles, but it also pretty fairly represents the women’s game too, explores history around the game, the media angle, and gives persuasive argument pieces as well as straight forward news reporting.

The interviews are easy to read but compelling – taking angles such as how foreign players cope with language differences, diversity within football and more, and there’s a delicious little comic spread too. Skills classes, a focus on kit, and lots of interaction with readers means that this is a sure winner.

For the World Cup last year, they printed a giant world football map with every football playing nation and flag. I always knew my son obtained his geography skills from football.

It’s a meaty magazine, so shouldn’t be discarded in one quick skim, and feels as if it has a more rounded offering than most of its competition. Highly recommend. Check it out here.

Ultimate Football Heroes SmithLastly, to my absolute joy, as a woman into football myself, I’m delighted to see that the Ultimate Football Heroes series has started churning out biographies of women footballers, written by Charlotte Browne.

One of the most popular series on my non-fiction shelves in the library, I’ve reviewed these books before, but recently have been impressed to see Kirby, Marta, Morgan and Smith leading the charge for the women’s game. The biography of Kelly Smith nicely highlights her frustration, as angry parents complained she was making their boys look silly at her local club. Although it doesn’t dip too far into gender equality, there are some lovely touches, such as explaining how Smith was judged by some on her looks as well as her skills, and how important it is to be a role model for schoolgirls. The series is published in time for the Women’s World Cup starting 7 June. You can buy it here.

Grumpycorn: introducing…NARWHAL!

A guest post by Sarah McIntyre

grumpycornIt’s that age-old conversation when you say you’re a writer, and the person you’re conversing with replies by saying ‘I’ve been thinking about writing a book too,’ or worse, ‘I’ve got a great idea for a book, I just don’t have as much time as you.’ Writing a book is incredibly difficult, but luckily in children’s picture books, author and illustrator Sarah McIntyre makes it LOOK super easy.

Her latest, Grumpycorn, is a tongue-in-cheek story about a grumpy unicorn who wants to be a writer. He has all the equipment (a fluffy pen, moonberry tea) but none of the inspiration, refusing help from friends. In the end, of course, he succumbs to his friends’ assistance. With vibrant rainbow colours, as befits a unicorn, sumptuous descriptions of food, a McIntyre trademark mermaid and more, this is a bright and brilliantly fun picture book. Below, Sarah McIntyre describes introducing Grumpycorn’s friend, Narwhal.

Who doesn’t love narwhals, the unicorns of the sea? In my new Scholastic UK picture book, Grumpycorn, Unicorn loves the idea of being a writer and coming up with the most fabulous story in the world. But he just doesn’t have an idea for his story.

…And then Narwhal shows up! Narwhal is FULL OF IDEAS for Unicorn.

But instead of being grateful, Unicorn acts like a total diva and is very mean to poor Narwhal.

Oh no! How could anyone say this about a Narwhal. Nasty Unicorn!

But Narwhal is surprisingly unruffled by this treatment. He’s used to Unicorn being a poseur and very silly, and goes off to do much more fun things with his friend, Mermaid.

At the end of the story, it’s Narwhal who is a surprise hero. He figures out that writing a story isn’t about coming up with the most fabulous idea ever, it’s just to start writing. And he starts by jotting down what’s happening right in front of him.

I think Narwhal is the character in the story who is most like me. This is exactly how I started this story, writing that I didn’t know what to write. And sometimes when people are mean to me, I sort of forget about what’s happened and get on with things – or at least, I think I’ve forgotten it. But then those things will percolate in the back of my head and turn themselves into ideas for stories, drawings or comics. I really like Narwhal, and I hope you will too.

For all my books, I create activities and how-to-draw guides, and this book has sparked lots of activities! You can download this How-to-Draw-Narwhal sheet from my website, and check out lots of other Grumpycorn activities here.

With thanks to Sarah McIntyre and Scholastic. You can buy a copy of Grumpycorn here.