nature

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.

 

Autumn 2018 Picture Book Round-Up 2

a house for mouse
A House for Mouse by Gabby Dawnay and Alex Barrow
There’s a wonderful satisfaction in spotting literary allusions in texts, as if the author has winked at you, and you looked up to catch it. Sometimes they’re very well hidden – but for children it’s important that the literary allusions are accessible. A House for Mouse plays upon the enticing estate agent theme of looking into other people’s houses, and also the literary allusions game.

Mouse is searching for a new house, but they all seem to have negatives – clear building regulation failures (The Three Little Pigs), architectural issues (Gingerbread house), inaccessibility (Rapunzel’s tower), overcrowding (There was an Old Woman) and so on. He settles on Sleeping Beauty’s castle but realises that in the end, home is where his heart is, of course.

With humour galore, a fairy tale map at the beginning and soft pencil illustrations delineating the different landscapes, this is a comforting and appealing story book that is more about friendship than location. See if the book suits you here.

theres room for everyone
There’s Room for Everyone by Anahita Teymorian
Mouse was wise to share his castle with his friends – Teymorian uses her picture book to point out that although the library has enough space for all the books (she’s clearly never been in my house), and there’s enough room for all the stars in the sky, human beings constantly fight over space – be it on the train or in a larger context of land and war. The message is simple – that with kindness and love there’s enough room for everyone. What might come across as a little sanctimonious and simple becomes more thoughtful if the reader studies the illustrations used to make Teymorian’s point – the clever use of the boundaries of the page, the distorted long-limbed humans, the neat use of lines to create patterns and textures. A warmth oozes from the pages. There’s room for you here.

the dam
The Dam by David Almond and Levi Pinfold
Immediately bringing to mind the beginning of Haweswater by Sarah Hall, a novel tracking the lives of dispossessed people after the flooding of a valley, this may feel like a strange topic for a picture book. Walker, pushing the boundaries, allows Almond to tell the story, based on truth, of a dam building in Northumberland, which led to the flooding of a valley and the village within it. Here, Almond and Pinfold retell the story of the musicians who played music in this lost place before the flooding.

With themes of loss, dispossession, rebirth and the power of creativity, Almond blesses his lyrical text with a deep simplicity, much repetition, and a clear placing of words within their white background. However, it is Pinfold’s brown and dreamy illustrations that provide the atmosphere and haunting quality to the text, showing both the before and after effects with deep pathos, understanding and clever use of soft muted, almost sepia colour. Pinfold brings a clarity to his study of water and structure, rendering the narrative with a distinct sense of place. And the light – the light pours through the book like water into a flooded valley. You can buy it here.

mary and frankenstein
Mary and Frankenstein by Linda Bailey and Julia Sarda
Another atmospheric interpretation in this celebration of the 200th anniversary of the publication of Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. Bailey approaches her topic by investigating how the events of Mary’s life brought her to the moment of creativity, exploring how the story of Frankenstein festered and developed within Mary’s mind. From the death of her mother, to the animosity of her stepmother, the mood swings of her father and her travels and influences, Bailey creates a full image of Mary’s young years with just a few carefully chosen words.

Sarda’s illustrations use darkness, shadows and an almost Picasso-like angularity to illuminate Bailey’s words, creating an unforgettable aura in the people she draws and the landscapes she illustrates. The richness of the colour palette – vivid reds, oranges and browns elucidates the richness of the culture within which Mary was subsumed, but it is the clever rendering of the skies, storms, and imagination at work in dark greys that really sets the tone. Many details to look at, including the houses of the era, the interior décor, as well as gravestones and horses and carriage provide an extra thrill for readers. Like Frankenstein itself, an unforgettable book. Inspirational. (The book is titled Mary Who Wrote Frankenstein in the United States). Explore the life of Mary Shelley here.

on a magical do nothing day
On a Magical Do-Nothing Day by Beatrice Alemagna, translated by Jill Davis
Illustrations of a completely different order in this modern award-winning text about finding creativity and adventure out of boredom, now published in paperback. A purposefully gender ambiguous protagonist is told by the mother to put down the computer game and find something to do. The child leaves the house with the computer console in order to be out of sight, yet gradually becomes sucked into the natural environment.

At first miserable and bored, the child soon finds joy and creativity in solitude; the neon orange coat at first marking the child as separate from nature, but then seamlessly blending into the myriad of mushrooms and toadstools, and before long there is wonder to be found in the sensuous delights around – jelly snails, the aroma of fungi, the sifting of earth through fingers. The weather plays its part too, and at the end mother and child bond over quiet contemplation and hot chocolate.

This is a phenomenal book of everyday discoveries, with illustrations that make the reader draw breath. The change in perspective, the clever use of light, tone and vignettes gives the book an excitement, and yet also tender empathy. I’m longing for a Do-nothing Day of my own. You can buy the paperback here.

travels with my granny
Travels With My Granny by Juliet Rix and Christopher Corr
On the surface a vibrant picture book about destinations throughout the world, told by an adventurous Grandmother, this is actually a book about dementia, and explaining to children how to try to understand what people with dementia are going through. The grandmother believes she is really travelling, and the other adults explain that she doesn’t know where she is, but for the child, (again an ambiguous gender) he/she is happy to explore the grandmother’s mind, even if it seems confused.

The illustrations are bright and garish, depicting New York on a bright yellow background with multi-coloured skyscrapers and entertainments – as brash and brassy as Times Square. London is blue, Jerusalem orange, Rome a tender mauve. A few facts punctuate each city – in Delhi the tricycle taxis are rickshaws for example. The information at the back explains about dementia. An important, interesting addition. Buy it here.

Beetles, Other Creatures and Conservation

For some children, their way into reading is not through love of story but rather through a particular interest, such as beetles, creatures or conservation. I recently had a client who was concerned about her son’s reading and begged me to find books on turtles – it was the only way in. For other children, their concern for their own future and the future of the planet is a key concern and although watching David Attenborough is fascinating and game changing – so is reading a book that teaches about conservation. My headline book this week is borne out of a fiction trilogy, although it very firmly sticks to the facts.

beetle collectorsThe Beetle Collector’s Handbook by MG Leonard, illustrated by Carim Nahaboo
This is an excellent extension of a make-believe world, yet despite the fictional author named in the front and the Beetle Boy characters’ printed scrawlings in the margins, the book is above all a bonafide non-fiction book on beetles, comprehensively written by Leonard and fact checked by leading experts. For those unaware, the Beetle Boy trilogy is a great adventure story about Darkus Cuttle, in which beetles play a large role. This book, The Beetle Collector’s Handbook, is referenced within the text as a key non-fiction handbook, and now Leonard has created her fictional reference as a real book.

Not only does it give further insight into the Beetle Boy characters with their margin annotations, but it gives detailed information on a selection of beetles, complete with annotated illustrations and rather wonderful tables and records of species. The illustrations show the actual size of some of the beetles, and the text supplies facts in a friendly, non-patronising and welcoming way.

The author’s voice comes through loudly and clearly, not only in her (or his, if you go with the fictional author Monty G Leonard) explanation that this is a book for both genders, but also in her instructionals on how to catch, study, but mainly respect these insects. As one would expect from someone who views beetles as insect superheroes with their own costumes and skills, the book is enormous fun, and genuinely encourages the reader to seek out beetles – which luckily for most means simply going to a local garden or park, in which at least fifty different species live apparently. This is an inspirational book, but also highly researched, so that a child will come away with scintillating knowledge but also enthusiasm and enjoyment. The book is packaged in a chapter-book style to sit neatly on the shelf next to the fiction trilogy (if you so desire), but also with a nod to the fiction behind it – it’s hardback with foil embossed cover and pages inside that are tinted so that it feels ‘old’. Clever, attractive and necessary. Like beetles themselves. Add it to your collection here.

survivalSurvival by Louise McNaught and Anna Claybourne, and produced in association with Tusk, is a phenomenal visual warning about the plight of some of the planet’s endangered and vulnerable animals. Some of the artwork in the book is taken from Louise McNaught’s art show, also called Survival, and features the creatures’ energy – some are so stark they seem almost like photographs – but are hand painted with incredible detail. What’s more the animals are fading into or rather out of a bright background, so the image of the tiger looks as though the animal is emerging from the green foliage, at the same time as perhaps being gradually faded out by an invisibility cloak – or rather the threat of extinction.

The book showcases each visual with a reference page that highlights the status of the animal (The Siberian Tiger is endangered) as well as giving key facts about population, Latin name, habitat and location in a small box. A paragraph of text gives context and illuminates the history but also conservation of the animal (action being taken to protect them), and their importance on Earth.

The artwork in the book is breathtaking – quite inspirational. If you hadn’t already worried about the future of the Hawksbill Turtle, you will after seeing its vulnerability portrayed with the upward drips of paint around its vivid, striking body. Age 7+ years. You can buy it here.

turtles, snakes and other reptiles
Turtles! When I spoke to that aforementioned client, there were only a few books around that met her son’s need. Now, there are more and more. I’d start with Turtles, Snakes and other Reptiles by Alice Pattullo and Amy-Jane Beer. This pocket guide with high production quality gives a comprehensive look at all things reptile, despite being quite pocket-sized for a non-fiction title. Full colour illustrations throughout, and mentions for lesser-well known species make this an excellent guide to reptiles. Each creature is given an introductory paragraph but also panels including ‘A Closer Look’ and ‘Did you know’, Latin names and captions and annotations. For the older amongst us, some of the small text is hard to read against the dark coloured backgrounds, but for its readership, this is a fascinating and worthwhile little series, in conjunction with Britain’s Natural History Museum. Age 7+ years. You can buy it here.

hello world animals

Three titles for younger children with an initial emerging interest in animals and seeking further understanding include Hello World: Animals by Nicola Edwards, illustrated by L’Atelier Cartographik. This companion piece to Hello World by Jonathan Litton is a novelty lift-the-flap title that explores the wonder and richness of the world around us. The book divides into the different continents, with maps overlaid by small images of animals, which when lifted give the name and a brief sentence. Brevity is of the essence here. I did enjoy the longer explanation as to where the European wilderness has gone, as well as the oddities of the Galapagos. The book features over 180 animals, pointing out when some are endangered, how some of them feed, and an interesting range of other facts – a good primer for primary school geography and exploration of the life sciences, and great for kids who like to dip into books to glean regurgitate-able facts. Age 7-9 years. You can buy it here.

There’s a Rang Tan in my Bedroom is actually a 90 second animated film narrated by Emma Thompson, but Greenpeace have released an accompanying book, which tells the rhyming story of a baby orang-utan who is homeless because of deforestation – the clearing of natural habitat to make way for palm tree oil cultivation. Sadly, although they sent me a copy, I can’t find one for you to buy, but you can watch the video here.

peek and seek
For a proper book, complete with flaps, full colour illustrations, and interactivity, little ones will like Peek and Seek by Charlotte Milner. At first appearance the spreads look empty – a landscape of houses, inhabitants silhouetted, and a tide of colourful trees behind. When the reader lifts the flap, a flock of birds and information appear as if by magic. The information describes roosting, group epithets, and migration, all on a hardy board book background. Further spreads include wolves, ants (although alliteration has won out over factual accuracy on this spread – using army rather than colony), fish, monkeys and rabbits: an eclectic mix with no apparent reason. There are also charts with things to find in the illustrations – a nice engaging bit of interactivity. A shame to find a spelling error on a key word in the factfile, but perhaps it will be picked up on reprinting. A gentle introduction for exploring eyes. Age 4+. You can buy it here.

 

 

I Am the Seed: Kate Wilson Explores Choosing Poetry

I am the seed that grew the treeThis autumn a most beautiful poetry anthology for children is published. A collaboration between Nosy Crow and The National Trust, I Am the Seed That Grew the Tree contains 366 poems – a poem for every day of the year, including leap years. However, unlike other anthologies of poems for every day, these poems are thematically linked by nature. There’s the temptation to open immediately on one’s birthday, or an anniversary, but browsing through the book from start to finish gives a sublime impression of the impact of nature – from the illustrations of spring blossom through to the resplendent colour of summer flowers to the golden brown and orange glow of autumn leaves, pumpkins and bonfires.

Because along with full-colour illustrations throughout, the book has been published with unrestrained, lavish production – there is a ribbon marker, a cloth cover, and thick hardy pages. In fact, it lends an authority and feeling of treasure to this book, combining wonderful poems – a magnificent collection of old and new, a mix of songs and poems, haikus in translation, (although most are English language and reflect a UK heritage and representation of seasons and nature, like The Lost Words) – with exquisite inviting illustrations.

The poems in the collection include old favourites, giving comfort in their familiarity, but also less well-known poems, from 185 poets including Emily Bronte, Christina Rossetti, Thomas Hardy, Carol Ann Duffy and John Agard to name just a few, and all the poems are short and accessible.

The collection is aimed at any age because although the illustrations may be child-friendly and the poems short, the book carries a trusty authoritative air as a rich poetry resource. The full landscape illustrations with exquisitely detailed animals work alongside the poems to inspire both a feeling of wonder at the natural world around us, yet also a wonder of looking within ourselves to understand the possibility of ideas and feelings encompassed within a few rhythmic words.

I’m delighted to welcome Kate Wilson, Nosy Crow’s Managing Director, to MinervaReads to explain the process of selecting the poems:

Choosing the 366 poems for I Am The Seed That Grew The Tree was a joy! Fiona Waters drew on her amazingly rich knowledge of contemporary and classic poetry to come up with the core selection, and the editor, our head of picture books, Louise Bolongaro, and I continually bombarded her with things we found, and things we loved, and she incorporated them into her huge collection. We then began the challenging task of arranging them.

First of all, poems had to suit the season, and, more specifically, the month they were placed in: we had more poems about snow than we had potentially snowy days to use them in. Then, where we had more than one poem on a double page spread, we had to make sure that the poems were relatively short, so the words didn’t swamp the illustration, because the visual pleasure of this book is that it is illustrated not with little vignettes, but with big pictures, big swathes of colour. And we wanted to have a range of poems in close sequence, so that, if you read the book sequentially, simple poems sat together with more complex ones, newer poems nudged older ones, funny poems jostled up against solemn ones, and famous names accompanied less familiar voices.

This was a book that we published in collaboration with The National Trust, whose guardianship of natural spaces in England was an important value that we wanted to reflect. So we worked hard to ensure that, with a very few exceptions, the poems reflected nature that a child in the UK was familiar with: there are no poems about tigers or banyan trees in this book, but there are poems about hedgehogs and dandelions. This meant that the poetic tradition that the book drew upon most was primarily the English-language pastoral poetry tradition, and we had to work hard to balance this with voices from outside that tradition – poets of colour writing in English, and Yoruba, Native American and Japanese voices are included. We also sought to include many women poets, including Judith Nicholls, whose poem, Windsong, gave us the title of the anthology:

I am the seed

that grew the tree

that gave the wood

to make the page

to fill the book

with poetry.

 

We operated on the ‘Field of Dreams’ principle: if you build it, they will come – they, in this instance, being customers and readers. We compromised on no aspect of this book. Only around a third of the poems, for example, are out of copyright. We had to pay for the permission to include two thirds of the poems in the book, and some of the costs were high! Sometimes, in clearing permissions, we ran into unexpected problems. There’s no A A Milne in the book, because you can’t re-illustrate A A Milne’s poetry. And who knew that several of Emily Dickinson’s poems are still in copyright because they were published in the form in which we know them long after her death?

Right up to the last moment, we were shuffling poems around to get the best possible mix and sequence. I can say, hand on heart, that, in my experience a book has never been touched so lovingly by more hands as it was being made. We only hope that it will be touched lovingly by many hands now it is ready to meet its readers.

I Am the Seed That Grew the Tree is illustrated by Frann Preston-Gannon, poems selected by Fiona Waters, with an introduction by Kate Wilson. It is published by Nosy Crow in association with the National Trust, and you can buy a copy here.

 

Rituals and Community

Although on the surface it would appear that the following three books are vastly different – a historical novel set in the Philippines, the first in a new fantasy quartet, and a dystopian novel published in 1993, I notice that they all rely heavily upon a coming-of-age ritual for their plots. Today in modern society, we still have coming-of-age rituals be they religious such as a bar mitzvah, or secular such as the transition to high school (made into quite an ordeal with end of primary proms, new uniform shopping, perhaps the purchase of a new phone etc.)

Each culture focussed in the three books has their own coming-of-age ritual central to their community – it marks the turning of children into adults and in all three cases gives them their adult role in the community. Each ritual is incredibly different but they retain similarities in design and all are deemed important by the community – indeed these societies are each bound as a community to the rituals, rules and beliefs that they inherit. And questioning of the rituals, rules or beliefs threatens the community…

bone talkBone Talk by Candy Gourlay
Gourlay’s latest novel sees her attempt to give voice, with a first person narrative, to the native Filipino’s view of history as she describes a boy on the brink of manhood in a tribal village in 1899. Although she fictionalises her story, this is a rare view of history in this land, seen before only through the eyes of occupying forces or anthropologists. Samkad is about to undergo the ‘cut’, the ceremony that turns him from boy to man and lets him join the warriors of his tribe who are fighting the headhunting enemy.

Samkad’s innocence is apparent immediately. He has never met anyone from outside his tribe, or been beyond the marked territory of the village’s paddy fields, and he also enjoys his time with his friend Luki, a girl who is also desperate to be a warrior, although held back by the view of gendered roles within her tribe. However, his innocence is not seen as a negative, and Gourlay writes intelligently about how he thrives within his community, and the importance of the community’s ‘innocence’ – the fact that they are undisturbed.

However, it takes more than a cut to make a man, and when Samkad’s coming-of-age ceremony is derailed, and a pale-skinned man, an American, arrives, Samkad and the reader learn that experience, not necessarily ritual, is what changes a person.

Gourlay is terrific at describing the landscape of Samkad’s village, from the mountains of rice paddies to the trees that surround them, but mostly at the intricacies of the customs of the tribe, the hierarchical structure of their community, and the rituals, sacrifices and beliefs that bind them together. Soon, it’s clear that the existential threat to the tribe comes not from enemy headhunters or snakes, but from the Americans, who aren’t as friendly as they first appear when they come bearing sweets as well as guns.

The story is fast-paced and written with an immediacy and visceral quality that immerses the reader in Samkad’s way of life and his emotions. Gourlay tells the story with an immense sensitivity towards the way of life she is describing but also with heat and power. The Americans bring a different kind of knowledge to the tribe – some of which is good and useful, and some of which is highly dangerous. As well as exploring these ideas, Gourlay poses questions about the nature of land ownership and territory, about warfare, and community, about changes that come from within as well as what happens when new people arrive. The story is about culture, belief, loyalty and the meaning of community and is historical fiction at its finest, with a fresh and invigorating outlook. Age 10+. You can buy it here.

storm witchStorm Witch by Ellen Renner
Another child facing her rites of passage ritual is Storm in Storm Witch by Ellen Renner. Now 13, she must undertake the Choosing ceremony to see if she will be claimed by one of the Elementals: Air, Water, Earth or Fire, and this Choosing will determine her course in life – her vocation. This is a fantasy novel set in some distant land at an unspecified time, but it’s clear that inspiration has been taken from a rural life – Storm’s village community lives from the land – pots are fired, food is fished or hunted, and cloth is woven from natural product. This is a place and time in which technology hasn’t been harnessed.

In a highly unusual occurrence, Storm isn’t chosen by one Elemental, but three, turning her into a witch, and one whose powers are not understood even by the village Elders, headed here by a matriarch. When the village is under threat from the Drowned Ones, (a separate tribe who live at sea) will Storm be able to harness her powers to save her community and particularly those she loves?

Renner has built her world around the power of the elemental forces of nature, and throughout the novel Storm’s people either harness the power for their own use, or suffer its dangers. This works cleverly, so that fire is a dangerous element with the power to destroy, but also of course with the nurturing power to bring heat and light. Water too is dangerous if combined with wind, but is useful in providing a way of passage to trade, and also for its fish. The reader feels at one with nature too reading the book, as though the sound of the sea is a constant backdrop to village life.

The magical elements are woven naturally into the landscape and don’t feel too fantastical, more a way of life and part of the rituals and beliefs of the society Renner has created. But what stands out most is the authenticity of her characters. Storm is a great teenager – on the cusp of womanhood but still bound into childhood squabbles and fighting, split between the childhood of her younger cousin and yet wanting to be part of the adult conversations, and desperate for adult wisdom and knowledge. She is modern in her outlook – her haste and impatience showing through, but also her loyalty and love. The other characters are fully fleshed too, from Storm’s patient mother to her guide and Elder, Teanu.

This is another community set apart and cut off from others, and so strangers are unusual, and when one arrives he brings excitement and danger. This novel too is fast-paced and powerfully written – and although I am generally not a great fan of fantasy, I remained gripped and bound to Storm’s world. Age 9+ years. You can buy it here.

the giverThe Giver by Lois Lowry
This isn’t a new book or even a new edition, but rather was a summer read for our family, and intersected with these other two books so neatly that I couldn’t help but mention it. For those of you new to it, The Giver tells of another community – set in a dystopian future, cut off from the rest of society and indeed from history. It follows a boy called Jonas who is also approaching his ceremony of adulthood – when at 12 the children are assigned the jobs and roles they will play within the community for the rest of their lives. However, Jonas is given a rather different job than the rest of his cohort: he is to be the new Receiver.

This is an unsettling futuristic read about a ‘utopian’ world in which all aspects of pain and suffering have been removed, and fairness rules. Each matched couple is given two children, a boy and a girl, whose own adolescent stirrings are repressed with medication. None of the community has memories, and the elderly and those who don’t fit are ‘released’ with great celebration.

Lowry gradually builds up the reader’s awareness of the world as they progress through the book, so that the reader is more and more unsettled,  until the full scale of the ‘utopia’ becomes apparent. When Jonas receives his new job, and starts to be fed memories of what human society used to be like (in order that he can dispel advice and wisdom to the Elders), the reader realises what the community has sacrificed and the path they have chosen, most unwittingly, and the reader’s moral compass kicks in to question which elements make life worthwhile and valuable.

This is a fascinating allegorical book that stimulates questions about how we live, about difference and sameness, about memories and creativity, about beliefs, rituals and community. It’s dark but simply told so that the horrors creep up stealthily. Lowry’s skilfulness in writing is immediately apparent. The prose is disturbingly simple and information is only drip fed until the reader is so immersed with Jonas, so emotionally entangled and engaged that they could not possibly release him without reading to the end.

It’s a powerful and provocative novel and poses many more questions than it answers. Age 11+ years. You can buy it here.

 

The Road Less Travelled

migrationMigration by Mike Unwin and Jenni Desmond
This is an spectacularly stylish book telling the story of the incredible journeys of twenty animals. Mike Unwin, UK travel writer of the year, has been superbly paired with Jenni Desmond, winner of The New York Times Best Illustrated Children’s Book, to draw attention to the migration patterns of the monarch butterfly, great white shark, caribou, Arctic tern and many others. Whether it be seasonal changes, a search for food, a place to breed, or an escape from a hostile environment, these are scintillating journeys that can occur annually or once in a lifetime.

Each animal is afforded a double page spread and each of these double pages looks as individual as the animal itself, and startlingly beautiful enough to hang on the wall. The butterflies, for example, in ‘Forests of Flutter’, are shown a-fluttering among the trees, with incredible perspective and perspicacity so that the reader feels as if they are standing amongst them, waiting for one to land on their palm.

The text matches the beauty of the pictures; it is told informatively but also poetically. Monarchs ‘dance’ in the air like ‘confetti’. Sentences are short and specific, and the four to six paragraphs per spread give a comprehensive overview. The reader will gasp often at the huge distances the animals travel – the delicate hummingbird, weighing less than a sugar lump, flies 800 km across the ocean.

The book manages to be a staple non-fiction text as well as depicting the awesome beauty of the world with powerful text and alluring images. The range of animals is well thought out – and well indexed at the back on a migration map of the world, with hints of conservation advice. It’s not often that a reader will find the Christmas Island red crab adjacent to the Globe skimmer dragonfly, the blue wildebeest and whooping crane. Here, they come together to create a thrilling book. Make the journey here.

journeysJourneys by Jonathan Litton, illustrated by Dave Shephard, Chris Chalk, Jon Davis and Leo Hartas
From animals to humans. This book gathers stories of human discovery, amazing endeavours, untrodden paths, and journeys that explorers have made from the earliest times – before they could even document them.

Journeys craftily concentrates on the lesser known explorers, the lesser well-trodden paths, so that although Christopher Columbus gets a mention, it is Nobu Shirase’s race to the South Pole that draws attention, the lawless Mary Bryant, the impressive James Holman, the pony express in the Wild West.

What’s great fun about these snippets is the unpredictability of the journeys – not only the road travelled and hitches along the way, but also the discovery upon arrival. Alexander Gordon Laing may have been murdered on his quest to find Timbuktu, but many others came back to tell and document their extraordinary stories.

The book is ordered physiographically, and also kind of chronologically so that it begins with exploration across the seas by the Polynesians, the history of which has been pieced together by archaeological evidence and knowledge of their culture. Towards the end of the book are journeys by motor car, and finally the exploration of space.

But as well as simply telling the stories of each explorer and each journey in paragraphs, sometimes punctuated by quotes from the explorer, the text seeks to ask questions too – why do humans make journeys with the dangers and risks involved – what are the rewards, and is curiosity itself a justifiable reason?

There are many extraordinary journeys in here, including Auguste Piccard and his balloon flights, Thomas Stevens with his penny farthing, and Nikolay Przewalski and his wild horses. Whether it’s all-encompassing across global cultures is difficult to tell, but it certainly attempts to be diverse and not be wholly ‘western’ focussed. There are bound to be sensitivities when discussing explorers and their treatment of indigenous people, the use of habitats etc, but Litton has tried to be fair.

The accompanying ink drawing illustrations are varied – some full-page pictures, other annotated maps, some vignettes, all with a sense of movement, and they balance the pages well. The character sketches all depict fierce determined travellers with a sense of a faraway look in their eyes, but again, there may be sensitivities to how some peoples are depicted. Explore it here.

mapmakers raceThe Mapmakers’ Race by Eirlys Hunter
I wanted to love this book about four children entering a competition to map a rail route through uncharted mountains. It has all the makings of a great adventure story, and from a writer who brings knowledge of the amazing landscapes of the South Island of New Zealand and Snowdonia in Wales. The premise starts off well enough. The children and their mother are on board the train to take them to the start of the competition, but when the mother fails to get back on after a break, the children are left to their own devices. There’s the inevitable panic and alarm and much humour too, before the children realise too much is at stake and they must enter the competition without parental guidance – a competition against professional adult route-finders.

There’s much debate about finding food (children left alone must deal with such matters), and of course dastardly cheating from some of the other competitors, and really beautiful descriptions of the difficult pathways and encounters with nature.

My caveat to loving this novel is the magical realism evoked when one of the children develops the ability to leave her body and fly up in the air to get a birds’ eye view and map their route. It just didn’t work for me, although other readers may find this the appealing strand of the story.

For those who love journeys though, this is a good read with beautiful illustrations throughout – particularly the maps at the beginning of each chapter. I would heartily recommend Brightstorm by Vashti Hardy and The Explorer by Katherine Rundell as other ‘exploration’ novels. To purchase The Mapmakers’ Race, click here.

 

Trees, Treehouses and the Spaces Inbetween

It doesn’t take a huge leap of imagination to understand the importance of trees as a metaphor or literary device in children’s literature. Their growth from seed to giant is in accordance with the growth of knowledge or imagination, they represent the wild within urban areas, they are a liminal space between ground and air. We use them in all manner of ways to talk about family trees, with all the various branches. We refer to a ‘tree of life’, a force that connects creation. Trees are affirmative – they give life by releasing oxygen, they provide food and shelter, they cover about 30 per cent of the world’s land area. No wonder I can rattle off ‘tree’ books in an instant – The Magic Faraway Tree by Enid Blyton, The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein, The Thirteen Storey Treehouse by Andy Griffiths and Terry Denton, The Magic Treehouse books by Mary Pope Osborne…and so many more.

But these three recent ‘tree’ books are something special.

everything you need for a treehouseEverything You Need for a Treehouse by Carter Higgins and Emily Hughes

There’s something about a treehouse – that arboreal space that’s also domestic, a meeting of urban and wild, a place where imagination lets loose. This is sumptuously captured in this highly detailed picture book published earlier this year. Lyrical text leads the reader into the book – explaining that what you need for a treehouse is time and imagination. The text then branches out into poetry, using extended metaphor and alliteration, comparing trees to an army, but then calming into more natural imagery – sun speckles seen close, boxes for begonias, and of course elements of play. And the treehouses imagined in this book invoke all sorts of play, from swinging tyres to bookshelves and boats.

There’s practical advice about building treehouses too: proposing a child starts with a plan, or wears a hard hat, and remembers snacks and socks for cold overnight stays. The beauty of the language, of course, is that this is not a set narrative, but a bundle of suggestions, a plethora of ideas. And so illustrator Emily Hughes is let loose with her imagination – just as the child would be, with passion for adventure and creativity.

There are numerous children in this book – a whole school perhaps or a village – each with their own identity, using brains or brawn or humour to play their part. One girl does another’s hair while she lies in a sleeping bag, some children are telling ghostly stories with shadow movement, others listen to music or watch the stars. They play pirates, or direct others with drills and measuring tape. And each page holds a different kind of treehouse – one over water, one as a pirate ship, one as a palm house, and one with a helter skelter staircase. These are treehouses from the imagination and they are fully realised on the page – detailed, wondrous and fantastical. Because of course, not all children have the adult help, time, resources or space to build a treehouse, but Hughes shows that even with just imagination, the most fanciful treehouses can be built in the mind or on the page. Like castles in the sky. You can buy it here.

a good day for climbing treesA Good Day for Climbing Trees by Jaco Jacobs, illustrated by Jim Tierney

Jacobs is a prolific and popular author, with more than 120 books published, although mainly in Afrikaans. This novel, translated into English, is a light book about serious issues. Marnus feels invisible, stuck in the middle of a teenage older brother and a genius entrepreneur younger brother. So when Leila knocks on his door with a petition to save a tree, an opportunity presents. Before he knows it, he’s climbing a tree to stop the bulldozers, and then remaining there in case the bulldozers return.

As well as showing the reader how activism develops – from kindly neighbours and friends, to local journalists, and student protestors, the book explores a thirteen year old’s friendship with a child of the opposite sex, particularly one he’s just met – Marnus’s awkwardness round Leila is drawn with pathos and understanding, and quite a bit of humour too.

A cast of eccentric characters who gather round the tree and their activism makes the text warm and quirky, but Jacobs does more than just populate the story with colour – each character has their motivations and backstory, each character is fully developed and cleverly drawn. But it is Leila’s motive to save the tree that draws the book to a satisfying close – and leaves the reader feeling both fulfilled and uplifted. (Age 8+ years). You can buy a copy here.

the family treeThe Family Tree by Mal Peet, illustrated by Emma Shoard

Another well-known and hugely admired author, Mal Peet’s emotive and evocative novella, The Family Tree, has been given loving treatment by publishers Barrington Stoke after his death. Peet’s succinct, intuitive and astute writing tells the emotional story of an unnamed narrator who returns to his childhood house, looking back with nostalgia but also adult realism, as he recalls the breakdown of his parents’ marriage and the pivotal treehouse in the garden, which provided a childhood adventure but also eventually the sanctuary for his father’s breakdown.

Stunningly told, the publishers have pared the perspicacious prose with Shoard’s impressionistic full colour illustrations – their light smudging a beautiful counterpart to a story going back into the past. Features are slightly indistinct, the green and greys lend a fluidity to the scenes, and the treehouse is both a loving object and a place of menace as it becomes the father’s home and the cause of much angst and pain. Shoard’s illustrations bring an almost sensory element to fill the white spaces left in between Peet’s words – the body language of the three family characters is both poignant and brilliant.

Rarely does one come across a children’s tale written quite so hauntingly, leaving one drained and emotional but also strangely hopeful, nostalgic and understanding of human nature, and in particular fatherhood. I read in one sitting – as will you – and yet it will stay with you much longer than the hardiest of treehouses. (YA title, not suitable for younger readers). Unmissable. Buy it here.

 

Social Action Picture Books

I do firmly believe that starting out with an agenda is not the best way to write a book, but often a cause or an issue catches our attention because of the story behind it. The media know this all too well – putting a human face to a crime, building a narrative around Brexit, giving story examples of health crises are the way we engage with issues. We need stories.

These clever picture books may be issue-based, but they win over the reader with their subtle blend of picture and text, with their bold narratives.

Homelessness:
the old manThe Old Man by Sarah V and Claude K Dubois

A skilful mix of tender illustrations and sparse text portray this issue with pathos and intelligence. Homeless people often feel invisible, and the gentle pencil sketching and sepia tones of this picture book lend an invisibility to the homeless man, but also give the book a sophistication and elegance that makes it attractive.

The book starts with daylight and a girl rising from her bed within her house, but flits quickly to the homeless man also starting his day, in the rain and ignored. It portrays his struggle with hunger and cold, his awkwardness and shame, his loneliness.

For much of the book, the people remain faceless – shown from waist down, or blurred in the rain. It is only at the end when there is human connection between the little girl and the homeless man, that the features begin to be defined. It is one act of human kindness that gives the homeless man the warmth and humanity to go to a shelter, and be recognised for who he is.

This is a brave and touching story, and an excellent picture book for allowing children to explore an issue and see that people are more than just their outward appearance. You can buy it here.

Gender Roles:
looking after williamLooking After William by Eve Coy

This humorously illustrated story takes a look at domestic roles and the workload of a parent in a warm and engaging manner.

The little girl of the story decides to act as ‘mummy’ to William, her stay-at-home Dad. She not only performs everyday tasks, but also sees his potential to be whatever he wants to be when he grows up.

The reader will adore her attempts to look after him – making him breakfast but spilling the milk all over the table, giving him exercise by making him tow her up the hill on his bike, and generally ‘looking after’ him by making him push her in the swing, or take her round the supermarket in the trolley. Her grown up jobs include building blocks, and making tea for her toys.

It’s a gorgeous portrayal of domestic life, with immense wit and warmth. In the end, the little girl decides that her Dad only wants one job, despite all the wonderful things he could achieve – and that, of course, is being her Dad. Uplifting and cute, and dominated with shades of blue, green and yellow – like a soft lamp casting a warm hue across the page. You can buy it here.

Animal Conservation:
hello helloHello Hello by Brendan Wenzel

Wenzel’s first picture book, They All Saw A Cat, took the perspective of the animal in viewing the world and illustrated each page accordingly. Hello Hello also gives animals shape and zest, showing the animal world in amazing variety – in colour, but also in action, with animals leaping, flying, twisting, turning and dancing across the white pages. Reminiscent of Lucy Cousin’s Hooray For Fish with its similar sparsity in rhyming text; the animals address each other with descriptive greetings: ‘Hello Stripes, Hello Spots, Hello Giant, Hello Not’. But Wenzel’s sparklingly colourful exploration of animal life takes the illustrations further by using a huge range of media including cut out paper shapes, oil pastel, computer graphic.

The message is simple – that the animals all share certain traits, despite their vast differences. Many of the creatures featured are endangered and Wenzel lists the animals at the back, stating whether they are vulnerable or not. A vibrant call to action. You can buy it here.

is it a mermaidIs it a Mermaid? By Candy Gourlay and Francesca Chessa

A tale of identity and imagination, in that Benji and Bel find a strange creature on their beach, and although they know it is a dugong, Bel goes along with the dugong’s story when she claims to be a mermaid. The humour lies in the illustrations, which represents the dugong as a fairly lumpen animal, about as far removed from mythical ideas of the mermaid as possible.

When Benji’s negativity causes the dugong to cry, he realises he’s been insensitive, and plays along too. The illustrations are colourful, particularly of the undersea world, and beautifully atmospheric, especially in the change in light depending on time of day, but they also bear out a childlike simplicity. What’s more the children and the dugong are constantly active – so that the picture book feels alive and exuberant.

At the end, the authors remind the reader that both dugongs and sea grass habitats are under threat, and give resources for how to help. Save the world here.

 

Environment Conservation:
the coral kingdomThe Coral Kingdom by Laura Knowles and Jennie Webber

Through simple rhyme, this book manages to explore facts about the coral reef, portraying the colour, diversity and life cycle of the ecosystem. Each page has a simple sentence accompanied by the most detailed and colourful illustration. In this way the book both informs and inspires.

There is much to take in – the dive of the dugong, homes of polyps, sea stars and mantas, turtles and minke whales. The colours and textures are plain to see, and the interweaving of the different creatures and plants make for quite a spectacle.

The shock comes over halfway through, when the beautiful colours are gone – bleached by the warming seas. The remainder of the book explores what humans need to do to protect this environment, with a beautiful pull out spread of how it should be, accompanied by information about conservation on the reverse. From the winners of the Margaret Mallett Award for Children’s Non-Fiction, this is a perfect picture book to teach first steps to conservation. See the coral here.

when the bees buzzed offWhen the Bees Buzzed Off! By Lula Bell, illustrated by Stephen Bennett

With a die-cut front cover, and lift the flaps throughout, this is a nifty book for young children about discovering nature. The insects inside the book are frantic that the bees have disappeared – told in an array of speech bubbles, accompanied by short narrative sentences.

The authors have had fun here: the insects are imbued with personality, and pretentions of comic wit: “the search is fruit-ile” says one, a joke wasted on the very young but wry for the adult reader. Other jokes suit the readership better – the jealousy of tadpoles at different stages, the lying spider.

In the end, the insects learn that bees need certain flowers to enable pollination, and without them our world would be poorer in many ways. You can buy it here.

You’re Safe With Me by Chitra Soundar and Poonam Mistry

you're safe with meThere’s something about the physicality of a book that can’t be matched. Perhaps that’s why, as Egmont report in their Print Matters findings, 94% of children’s books bought in 2017 were purchased in their print format. If we look to history, it was the most important texts that were physically preserved – revered for the time invested in them. The Grimm Brothers saw the necessity of the oral folk tales, and therefore wrote them down. And picture books earn their place in this tradition of printed matter, with the attention to detail and care that goes into them.

Mass printed they might be, but sometimes picture books are so beautiful they appear as if they have been created with the individual reader in mind. This latest picture book, You’re Safe With Me from Chitra Soundar and Poonam Mistry, catches the eye with its lyrical prose, but also stands out for its stunning design, which calls up the kalamkari tradition of textiles, apt because the name derives from the Persian words for pen and craftsmanship – and this book does feel like a piece of exquisite craft.

It is a dark and stormy night, and the baby animals within the Indian forest are scared: a monkey, a loris, a tiger and a pangolin. Two familiar animals, two rather more exotic – familiarity for cosiness, and exotic for exploring and learning. Looking after them all is Mama Elephant – her size and wisdom providing solace and comfort.

A ‘Raindrops on Roses’ story for the young, this is a more in-depth and intelligent soothing of fears. Mama Elephants attempts to explain, with her scientific knowledge, the logical reason for the storm – why the wind blows, why the thunder clatters, why the river rumbles. In doing so, she explains the weather cycle – the ability of the wind to bring seeds, the rain to cause them to grow, the river to take the water back to the sea. But her language is poetic; and she speaks in a rhythm that soothes like a lullaby.

By naming each sound for the babies, and then explaining its purpose, she dispels their fear with understanding – a lesson for our times. This feels like an old fable, brought up to date with understanding and modern sensibility. An emotional attachment is formed with the animals, and a sense of relief in their comfort, much like the smell of Earth after a rainstorm.

But it is the illustrations that propel this book and make it so much more than a comforting bedtime read. The patterns on the page, the fusion of geometry and art, are drawn with a richness, almost a hypnotic quality. The reader sees the shapes of the animals, but each is so exquisitely drawn, etched with colour and design, so that the frogs are both stark against their background, but also blend into it with a riot of line and pattern. The fish swim on a background of blue circles, the lightning sparkles against a black background of shining diamonds and circles. It is absorbing, glossy and appears almost three-dimensional in its intricacy.

You’re Safe with Me is a triumph of a picture book. The rhythm of text and illustration sweep the reader into the story. I can imagine children hugging it to sleep, the physicality of this book reassuring and mesmeric. You can buy it here.

The Big Book of the Blue by Yuval Zommer

big book of the blueFollowing The Big Book of Bugs, and The Big Book of Beasts, Zommer dives into underwater territory with The Big Book of the Blue, and I think it’s his best yet. It bears the same format as the others in the series, large format hardbacks with double pages dedicated to a theme, and questions to introduce these – such as ‘How Does An Animal Breathe Underwater?’ And ‘When is a Turtle a Sea Turtle?’ Each question is answered with a simple one or two sentence paragraph.

This is a book more about trivia than in-depth knowledge, so for young readers it works spectacularly. I had no idea that a flying fish was blue on top so a bird flying above can’t spot it against the sea, for example, and these are just the sort of facts that children like to spout at random.

Zommer excels at creating distinctive illustrations too. The book is a wash of blue, gentle lines and shading in the background giving a sense of movement and depth (except for the deep exploration, in which there is a completely black background to represent menace and the unknown – the place where the sunlight doesn’t seep).

But it is the creatures that perform. Zommer gives his fish two eyes, even when they are in profile, which makes them stand out as different, but also gives them a slightly comic feel. His octopuses side-eye from the page, his sharks grin wickedly whilst glancing around them, his penguins look slightly mad as they waddle the shoreline or dive for fish – their heavy bones sinking them to the bottom of the page. Only the whales remain one-eyed for the main – their bodies too large to show both.

These features – the protruding mouths of the puffer fish, the pursed lips of the boxfish – lend a cartoon element to the illustrations, making them playful and imbuing them with personality. And accompanied by the scant text with minimal yet intriguing facts, this feels like an immersion in a strange playful underwater world.

There are numerous small touches that bring a smile to the reader – the magnifying glass to illuminate krill, (although nothing is to scale, this is an imagining of the sea in pictures), the teeth of the leopard seal, and also the pages on ‘how to talk like a sea life expert’. But there is plenty of seriousness too – Zommer points to the plastic polluting the sea, overfishing and global warming. There is information on sea depths, and a page on rock pools.

And there’s even an interactive element, with a ‘Can you Find’ feature throughout.

An index gives the book a proper non-fiction attribute, and with a sea-life expert consulting, this feels like the perfect starter non-fiction. The facts are verified, and although the text appears slight, there is a wealth of information within. By the end, even I could ‘talk like a sea life expert’, understanding words such as habitat, tide, food chain and plankton.

Chatty in tone, serious in information, this is a an exciting way to entice children to find out. You can dive into the deep for your own copy here.