nature

Nine New Picture Books Begging to be Read

little red reading hood
Little Red Reading Hood by Lucy Rowland and Ben Mantle
‘Why didn’t I think of that play on words?’, is the first thing I thought upon reading the title, but when I perused the insides, I realised I couldn’t have done it better myself. This is a captivating and entrancing picture book – the sort a child treasures and rereads. Little Red Reading Hood loves books and in a twist, doesn’t visit her grandma, but rather, the library. When Little Red Reading Hood and the tenacious librarian impress the wolf with their literary knowledge and analysis, the wolf turns to stories instead of eating people.

The twist here, is that instead of straying from the physical path through the woods, it’s better to stray from the all-too-predictable ending of a story, and instead, reinvent it.

The story is told in rhyme, with pitch perfect rhythm, but it’s also the little touches that enhance this picture book so wonderfully. From the endpapers with Little Red Reading and the wolf having fun mixing up fairy stories, to the beautiful ethereal golden-hued illustrated imagination that soars through the book, to the nature depicted in the woods. This is a fabulous new picture book and my top choice. You can buy it here.

pirates of scurvy sands
The Pirates of Scurvy Sands by Jonny Duddle
The Pirates Next Door is an immensely popular read, and this sequel keeps equal pace and humour with the original. In fact, just one reading of it inspired my little tester to find and read ALL of Duddle’s back catalogue. This time round, Matilda is going on holiday with her pirate friends, the Jolly-Rogers. Their destination – Scurvy Sands – like a sort of Butlins for pirates. The only trouble is that Matilda, with her squeaky clean demeanour, doesn’t quite fit in.

This is a totally luscious affair for pirate fans. Also told in rhyme, it’s simply packed with swashbuckling vocabulary and pirate allusions, with a busy backdrop on every page – telescopes, pirate paraphernalia, characters and more. Duddle has gone to town (or sea) and had lots of fun in the process. There’s even a treasure map on the reverse of the book jacket. Gold coins all round. You can buy it here.

cat and dog
Cat and Dog by Helen Oswald and Zoe Waring
For younger children comes this exquisitely illustrated lesson on getting on with others. A nocturnal cat and a diurnal dog love to scrap, but when they fail to see eye to eye on their different routines, and Dog insults Cat, it looks like a beautiful friendship is over. By the end, of course, they learn to say sorry and accept each other’s differences.

It’s the illustrations in this simple story that bring it to life, two hugely endearing and familiar animals, drawn so that they look good enough to stroke. The crayon-led illustrations add to the familiarity of the chosen pets, and the last page of their ‘scrapping’ together is a clever childish mess. Too cute to miss, this is a lovely publication from new publisher on the block, Willow Tree Books. You can buy it here.


I Say Ooh You Say Ahh by John Kane
One for reading out loud to a willing audience, this reminded me of those old-time party entertainers, but here, the silliness is executed with modern panache and an element of complete childhood joy.

This is a traditional call and response book – the author asks the reader to say or do something every time they read or see something. The result has an hilarious effect, leading to the children shouting underpants quite often. The reader has also to remember which action goes with which command, so it’s stimulating too. Great for classroom fun, and the colours are bold, bright and all-encompassing. The author used to work in advertising – and it shows in the block colours – easy to look at, easy to understand. You can buy it here.


Ten Fat Sausages by Michelle Robinson and Tor Freeman
It’s often remarked how translated fiction can go further and push more boundaries than our home-grown picture books, but here’s one that takes the ten protagonists and really gives them a raw (cooked) deal.

A play on the song, Ten Fat Sausages Sizzling in a Pan, here Michelle Robinson shows what happens when they try to save themselves. Unfortunately, sausages don’t appear to be very clever. Whether it’s leaping from the pan into the blender, or even into a ceiling fan, it seems that no sausage is safe.

The illustrations from Tor Freeman match the madness of the concept – from blueberries with their eyes covered, to weeping sausages, hoola hooping onion rings, and an almost retro comic feel to the lot – this is a crazy sausage adventure. Sure to bring out the giggles in little ones. You can buy it here.


The Strongest Mum by Nicola Kent
Being a mum, and having a great mum myself, I’m always touched by the portrayal of fabulous mothers in picture books – be it giving Sophie a fabulous tea when the tiger arrives, or returning to the Owl Babies at the end of the night. The mum in this delightfully sweet picture book amasses belongings and carries them all as if she were weightlifting for England.

Dealing with a familiar issue (carrying everything!) – and why giving up the buggy too early and having to schlep all the shopping by hand can be a mistake – this is a wonderfully exaggerated portrayal of a super mum. From carrying some treasure found in the garden at the beginning, Little Bear’s Mum ends up carrying everything including Zebra’s shopping, Lion’s laundry, and then…a piano. It all comes crashing down though, and Little Bear realises he has to help.

The illustrations are undeniably child-friendly, in a multitude of jewel colours, with an aerial view of Mum’s bag, each item labelled! With oodles of white space, the book doesn’t feel slight because every illustration is packed with texture, pattern and colour, despite a slight transparency to it all. An intriguing new style and a good pick for Mother’s Day. You can buy it here.


Lionel and the Lion’s Share by Lou Peacock and Lisa Sheehan
Another for a slightly younger readership, giving a moral story, this encourages children to share. Lionel the Lion is bigger than most of his friends, and good at snatching. So whenever they see something they want, Lionel always gets there first. When Lionel goes a bit too far at Chloe the Cat’s birthday party, he realises that he’s angry and sad, and needs friends most. Sharing is best.

Drawn with tender pencil strokes, Lionel himself is phenomenally vibrant, with a large orange and brown mane, and his animal friends are equally detailed. They are vastly anthropomorphised with clothes as well as human behaviours, but it is the colourfulness and fun of the backgrounds that enhance this picture book. A detailed musical instrument shop, a hat shop, and the village green – this storybook world looks timeless and appealing. You can buy it here.


Robinson by Peter Sis
A bit of a love letter to Robinson Crusoe, this picture book takes a look at the meaning of being bullied for liking something different, and also a whimsical approach to solitariness. It also shows what happens when a child or adult finds inspiration, solace and adventure in a storybook and use it within their own lives.

In fact, author Peter Sis researched the flora and fauna of Martinique, the inspirational island behind Defoe’s novel, and used his knowledge to illustrate the book. Sis’s fine art background gives some insight into the illustrations in these structured and intriguing pictures. He plays with point of view and light and shadow to create an utterly unique look to the book. The colour palette tells the plot just as much as the narrative itself.

Typeset in uppercase letters, the whole book feels like a stream of consciousness, a message in a bottle, as the colours blossom and bloom with the boy’s discovery of his own island in the imagination.

The book aims to deliver a paean to the act of adventuring and exploration, even that which happens in the mind rather than in actuality. A great discovery. You can buy it here.


My Worst Book Ever by Allan Ahlberg and Bruce Ingman
Last, but definitely not least, if you’re wondering how all those authors and illustrators featured so far produced their books, then you’d best read My Worst Book Ever. Allan Ahlberg and Bruce Ingman are no strangers to the picture book trade, and here they’ve created a humorous look at what can go wrong when writing a book.

A classic book within a book scenario, as Ahlberg explores how he is writing a picture book about crocodiles, the text of which is hinted at within this book, but then things start to go wrong – the illustrator has different ideas, as does the publisher, and then a naughty girl at the printers messes it up even further. Added to this are all the various procrastinations that writers bow to – distractions out the window, family interruptions etc.

For children this is a fun and humorous look at the publishing trade. For writers, it’s a mirror. Illustrated cheerfully, this will bring a wry smile to many a face. You can buy it here.

 

Animals, Hotels and Crazy Antics

Once they reach an age of reading for themselves, it’s quite delightful to see young readers pick up a series – they can devour book after book, knowing what’s coming next, but also developing an affinity with the characters, and feeling secure in the familiarity. I know that some of the most popular series in the library for these newly independent readers are Claude by Alex T Smith, Isadora Moon by Harriet Muncaster and of course, Horrid Henry by Francesca Simon. But if your little ones have READ ALL THE BOOKS IN THE LIBRARY, as one said to me recently, then you might like to try these new books:

nothing to see here hotelThe Nothing To See Here Hotel by Steven Butler and Steven Lenton
One of the wackiest, zaniest and most inventive books of the new year is this fun, silly, and outrageously colourful adventure from the author of Dennis the Menace books. The Nothing To See Here Hotel sits on the Brighton sea front, but it is enchanted and therefore invisible to the human eye (except for when a seagull flies into one of the invisible towers). Our narrator, busting with the same enthusiasm and energy of the author, is Frankie, one thirty-sixth troll, who lives in a world of magical creatures, and is descended from a long line of trolls, harpies, witches and puddle-nymphs.

Told in a chatty, conversational style, this is an exuberant romp through a day in the life of the hotel, which is owned by Frankie’s parents. A goblin messenger arrives in quite a whirlwind, announcing the imminent arrival of the goblin prince. The hotel is excited, until they see the prince’s mammoth entourage (which reminded me of the entourage song in Disney’s Aladdin), and the stuck-up prince himself, who is hiding a little secret.

The book moves fast – the characters are constantly in action, and Butler piles on the craziness, scene after scene. There is much unexpected plot, as it veers off in different directions, endlessly daft, weird and fun.

Like Phil Earle with his Storey Street series, and Tom Fletcher in The Creakers, Butler weaves himself into the novel by playing with the role of author – exploring elements of story and congratulating the reader on reaching certain points. This is never patronising, but an extension of the fun and games Butler is clearly having with the text. He also invents new vocabulary, along the likes of Dahl, weaving in words such as ranciderous and squivelling. Each addition is exciting, fun and fits the story well.

Hotels are also great fodder for literature – endless rooms, misfit characters, people away from home, and Butler makes full use of his imaginative Brighton resort. The final copy will be highly illustrated by Steven Lenton, but I received a very early review copy without illustrations. You can buy it here.

bee boy
Bee Boy: Clash of the Killer Queens by Tony De Saulles
Another cracking start to a series is this cartoon-based book about a new kind of superhero, a bee-boy. Melvin, by way of a touch of magical surrealism, falls into a bee’s hive that he’s tending, and is nominated protectorate from all anti-bee things by the bees.

It may sound a little strange, but works brilliantly, as De Saulles, illustrator of the Horrible Science series, meshes together ideas of bullying and survival, in Melvin’s experience of school, and the bees’ experience of human and natural dangers.

The parallel might seem extreme, but as Melvin battles with the horrific Norman Crudwell at school, so his bees battle against a myriad of menaces, from killer wasps to hawkmoths. Of course, De Saulles pulls in much ‘bee education’ in this fiction tale, but he manages to keep providing great sting and wit at the same time.

The reader will feel for Melvin as he overcomes his obstacles, but pathos is particularly evoked in the illustrations – Melvin has oversize glasses and sticking-out-teeth but manages to be presented as fairly adorable too. In fact, with the popularity of awkward cartoon-like heroes such as Tom Gates and Wimpy Kid, Bee Boy enters the fray as another contender for most gawky, and will win fans and readers. The book is simply full of illustrations, which gives a fabulous clue to each and every character. Most importantly, check out those endpapers. De Saulles has gone to town with his miniature depictions of Melvin’s classmates – imbuing each with an identity and personality. Lashings of fun, and a wonderful little crush on school friend Priti make this a buzzing read. You can buy it here.

night zoo keeper
Night Zoo Keeper: The Giraffes of Whispering Wood by Joshua Davidson, Giles Clare and Buzz Burman
Will is taking part in a school project to paint a mural at the local zoo, but gets admonished for his creative use of colour. When he returns at night, he opens a portal into the land of the Night Zoo, where animals talk, and danger lurks.

He makes friends with a giraffe called Sam, who explains that not only is Will the Night Zookeeper, but that he must keep the animals safe from the Voids – scarily destructive robotic spiders.

This is a short, fantasy adventure story, with stunning black and white illustrations throughout, but it is also a jumping off point for children and teachers to explore an accompanying website, called NightZooKeeper.com with the idea to stimulate creative writing.

A mix of animals, action, robots and a helping hand from a girl called Riya, the book ends on a cliff-hanger leading into the next story, publishing in August. It’s not ground-breaking storytelling, but my little testers liked it well enough. You can buy it here.

dave pigeon
Lastly, and by no means least, is what happens when a series for newly independent readers takes off (no pun intended). Dave Pigeon (Racer!) by Swapna Haddow, illustrated by Sheena Dempsey is the third title in the successful series about a couple of pigeons who talk their way through their adventures and demonstrate oodles of personality and pigeon wit. In this particular episode, Dave Pigeon is recovering at the vets, having had a prosthetic wing fixed, when he’s challenged to a race by a pirate bird. Playing on the idea of racing pigeons, and with allusions and jokes galore for adults as well as children, this is a sniggertastic read. With language puns, sparkling wit in both text and illustration, your newly independent reader couldn’t ask for more. Unless they want a fourth Dave Pigeon book? You can buy it here.

 

The Very First Spring Picture Books

As the days gradually get longer, and there’s the promise of new beginnings in the air, thoughts often turn to nature. Here are two new picture books that are positively brimming with the idea of spring and natural light, and both feature insects – one anthropomorphed as male, one female.

The Weaver

The Weaver by Qian Shi
Just published this year, The Weaver is one of those special picture books that appeals to the very young with its tone, and yet transmits a message that is for all ages. Stanley the spider is born, and after catching a lift on the wind, starts to build a collection of precious things in his web. But unfortunately, the weather plays havoc with his plans, and blows away his possessions. It’s what he’s left with though, that really touches the heart.

This is a powerful story, illustrated with clean simple lines and colours, which instructs us about the impact of memory. In a world in which we attempt to capture everything on a mobile phone, or through a lens, this is a great reminder that our brains are the best receptacle for what’s precious.

Illustrated pitch perfectly, with a friendly spider who is almost cartoon-like in his demeanour, with expressive legs/arms that Shi has manipulated so that the reader sees the spider’s emotion through the shape of his body and placement of legs as well as his mouth. But it’s also the nature surrounding Stanley that works so well – the simple shapes of plants, the clever fading on the web for effect, and of course the shiny front cover.

Just like Stanley’s collection of objects, this is a book that makes an impression on the memory and will last for some time. A great start to the year. You can buy it here.

Firefly Home

Firefly Home by Jane Clarke and Britta Teckentrup
Another picture book for the very young, this too speaks to the reader, and even asks for interactivity, but there is more than just a simple story in this clever book. Florence is a firefly and she’s lost. The reader is asked to help her find her way home, but every time Florence sees a bright yellow light on the page, when the reader turns over, Florence is disappointed – it’s not the light she’s seeking. Once a moon, once a lighthouse, then a train, then city lights.

None is the home Florence is looking for, and the author makes it very clear that the bright lights of the city are too bright for Florence. This light pollution is making wildlife lose its way. At last, there’s a happy ending and Florence is reunited with her family.

The dazzling yellow in the illustrations works wonderfully – both in the way it shines through a hidden space, but also in the big reveals, when light spills from the top of the lighthouse, or dazzles the reader in the bright city. And Florence, as with Stanley, is endearing and rather human – in that her body language is expressive, her large eyes especially so. By the end, the reader will feel they had a part in helping the firefly, and will probably want to read all over again. Amazing colours in the blue of the sky, the yellow of the lights, and fantastically simple shapes of the buildings and flowers. You can buy it here.

Sky Song by Abi Elphinstone

Elphinstone’s stories whisk away the reader into a fantasy landscape with more than a hint of magic, where nature beguiles the reader and becomes more than a setting, nestling as a fundamental character inside the story.

Her first trilogy, The Dreamsnatcher, told of Moll and her quest against evil. Sky Song also pitches a fiery youngster against evil, but here, Elphinstone has woven elements of the current political and social climate into her book, and borrowed from time old fairy stories and folk tales to excavate a new kind of modern story.

Eska, held captive for her voice by the Ice Queen, breaks free from her musical box prison, but remembers nothing of herself or her past. When she learns her destiny: to journey to the Never Cliffs and sing the powerful song to win back the lands of Erkenwald from the Ice Queen, restoring them to the rightful tribes, she learns that she is also is in a race against time and the Ice Queen, who is desperate to steal back Eska’s voice. But once freed from the music box of the Winterfang Palace, Eska finds it hard to make friends and allies. The tribes are mistrustful of her. She must prove that she too wants to be rid of the Ice Queen forever, and that although she does not have a tribe of people around her, she has a different tribe, filled by creatures of nature, which may be just as powerful.

The power of the voice, (it will give the Ice Queen immortality), and the stealing of it, works powerfully in Elphinstone’s book. Of course there are the inevitable allusions to Philomela, whose tongue was cut out in Ovid’s Metamorphosis to prevent her from denouncing her male attacker, and who was eventually turned into a bird who sings. There are allusions to The Little Mermaid – another feisty young girl who sold her voice for humanity (or so she thought). The book revisits Telemachus’s proclamation to Penelope that ‘speech will be the business of men’ and challenges it wholeheartedly. For the power of a young woman’s voice is still relevant in 2018, a year in which this resonates more than most – being the 100th anniversary of Women’s Suffrage. Following the power of Anne Frank’s voice, of Malala’s voice, of #metoo – the rise of the woman’s cry, even against another woman, speaks to the power of speaking up for yourself, for believing in what’s right and fighting for it.

The book is first and foremost an icy adventure, with a journey through shiveringly cold frightening landscapes, magicked by the sorcery of the Ice Queen, where avalanches tumble, and lakes hide monstrous depths. But it is also the story of friendship and bravery, as Eska and her friend Flint, along with his sister Blu, traverse mountains together and use teamwork to overcome adversity, and triumph against the Ice Queen.

Most of all, Elphinstone has shown the reader that belief is important. Belief in oneself and one’s own voice, but also in one’s own talents even if they are scorned by others (Flint is a master of invention – in this case using magic rather than pure science). Although there is no overt religion discussed here, as perhaps the reader saw in Northern Lights by Philip Pullman for example, there is an overarching belief in spirituality – that there is something greater to strive for than one’s own selfish desire. Elphinstone has divided the peoples of her book into tribes, Fur, Feather and Tusk, and initially the society is shown as having lost its belief system, because being cowed by one evil being (the Ice Queen) has made each tribe more inward-looking. Even more than that, The Ice Queen has caused ripples of fear, and so the tribes have turned not only inwards, but against each other, and harbour an intense fear of strangers and outsiders, lest they be spies or intruders.

By the end of the book the message is clearly that tribalism may not work, that strangers do not necessarily have evil intent, and by working together, evil can be overcome.

As well as the large messages within, this book showcases a writer coming into her own. The descriptions are lush and appealing – the flump of snow flopping from a branch, and crack and pop of the river melting – a feeling of Narnia-eque bursting into spring. The Ice Queen brings memories from The Snow Queen, and the fairy tale language of the voice-over prologue lends itself well to the feeling of timelessness and gives an all-encompassing setting to Erkenwald and its various tribes (although less confident readers may wish to get straight into the story of Eska).

There are numerous child-friendly touches within the story – the protagonists are children of course, but there are hideouts and dens lovingly described, and a constant flow of energy and vivacity sending their tendrils through the story. Eska’s oneness with nature is brilliantly evoked – she uses nature to feed and clothe herself – sewing with sinews, learning to hunt without her shadow giving her away. There is also the touching character of Blu, shown with a mild intellectual disability, but it is noticeable that the older children and adults are those least forgiving of this; Blu is easily accepted by Eska, Flint, and those with kind, open hearts.

This is a fantastic story of friendship, nature, overcoming adversity, but most of all acceptance and belonging. Always enthralling and daring, it speaks to our darkest fears and our intrinsic faults, and yet to an ongoing belief in the strength of humanity and empathy to pull us through. You can buy it here.

The Ice Sea Pirates: A Sneak Peak at Illustrations

I’m delighted to showcase The Ice Sea Pirates by Frida Nilsson, illustrated by David Barrow, on the blog today. Nilsson’s latest book, The Ice Sea Pirates, is a classic children’s adventure story about a girl called Siri who dares to trek the ice seas and face down fearsome leader of pirates Captain Whitehead, in order to rescue her sister. This is a survival story set in a wild landscape of our dreams and nightmares – seas that freeze over with extreme cold and lash ships to pieces with their ice shards – a troop of pirates who capture children to work down a mine – ferocious wolves who wander the ice looking for prey.

But above all, this is a hugely compelling read with a sympathetic, staggeringly brave and wholesome main character, and a gripping narrative. It’s no wonder the book has been nominated for five Swedish book awards, and won three of them. Now, available in English, translated by Peter Graves, and softly and warmly illustrated by David Barrow, this is really a sumptuous read.

Nilsson draws clever parallels between wolf cubs and children, explores boundaries of nature and nurture and protection of the young. She also shows the ability of children to see the larger picture, as well as delving into themes of family loyalty, and the wonder of mythical sea creatures. This is a daring and intelligent tale, sprinkled with humour. More than anything though, it is the imaginary harsh Arctic landscape of small islands dotted in the freezing sea that dominates, and creates an adventure that’s both beautiful and challenging. Frida Nilsson explains the role of nature in the novel:

“The scenery is very important I think, in order to convince the reader that I am “telling the truth”. That doesn’t mean that the description of the scenery most be very long. In fact, I heard a Swedish writer say once: the longer and more thorough the scenery is, the surer you can be that the writer was never there for real. To describe the scenery in a short and vigorous manner is not easy.

The Ice Sea Pirates is a fictional world with, of course, strong impressions from the Arctic. I went to Tromsö (northern Norway) with my mother once. She worked at the hospital there and I had the days all to myself to wander about and go to the local museum, where they had exhibitions about whale- and walrus-hunting. A lot of my ideas for the book come from that trip.

My home town of Mörkö, Sweden, wasn’t a direct influence for this book, but the beautiful scenery is an inspiration for me and my writing.”

Frida’s text is complemented by the softly drawn, mesmeric images from illustrator David Barrow. Below is a selection of the images, which Gecko Press have been kind enough to let me share.




You can buy The Ice Sea Pirates here.

Sky Dancer by Gill Lewis

So, the Arts and Humanities Council is attempting to find the UK’s favourite book about nature. This is no easy feat. There are so many wonderful books about nature, but I think the children’s book world excels in this. My book of the week the other week was The Lost Words, and you’d be hard pushed to find a better paean to our natural world. Yet, there is another writer who is doing a great deal to draw the attention of the nation’s children to the natural world and our environment. I reviewed Gorilla Dawn by Gill Lewis a while ago – a revelatory novel that brings the world’s attention to the gorillas affected by coltan mining, but in Sky Dancer, Lewis hits a spot closer to home, basing her novel here in the UK, and returning to the style and themes that led her to write Sky Hawk in 2011.

Her latest novel for children, Sky Dancer, addresses the issue of the hen harrier, one of the most threatened birds of prey in the UK, remaining rare due to habitat loss, weather and illegal killing. It’s this last aspect that Lewis tackles in her book, but this novel is not an ‘issue’ book – it’s an incredibly insightful, emotional picture of who we are, and how we are shaping modern Britain.

Three children trek the landscape of this startlingly astute novel: Joe, reeling from his father’s death, and caught in the middle of a battle for the fate of the hen harriers who nest in the heather of the moorlands where he lives. There’s also Minty, the stylish confident daughter of landowners who use the land for grouse shooting, and for whom the hen harriers are a nuisance, and lastly Ella, who seems to be a naive and rather insecure urbanite, but who manages to think as an outsider – finding solutions to which those in the midst of the struggle are blinded.

In the end, these three unlikely friends, find their way forward, and a way forward for the hen harriers. They are each drawn terrifically authentically, with clear ideas of their roots and social class, and their struggles and difficulties. Whether it be divorced or deceased parents, or simply parents with whom one disagrees, Lewis portrays the different make-up of families, and the way in which the children deal with their different situations.

Joe, in particular, is fascinating. He is at the centre of the struggle, torn sometimes between the two girls and their different views of past and present. He also has to face up to how his father acted and the consequences of that, as well as how his older brother is currently acting – what’s morally right, what’s right for his family, and what’s right for the environment. When these things aren’t the same, he has to reconcile his conscience with how to act. Told from Joe’s point of view, the reader is privileged to see what happens in his head, particularly as he’s a quiet child, loathe to speak in many cases. Lewis has accomplished a great character here, complex, sensitive and real.

Not only is the book a gripping read, but it also sparks thoughts on a range of topics: the fate of hen harriers, and the impact, and other preoccupations of the modern world such as accepting difference, the meeting of technology and nature, town and country, and questions of heritage; which traditions should continue and what needs to adapt.

Of course the book explores life on a hunting estate, in which grouse shooting is fundamental to its past traditions and current livelihood, and although that might feel remote to many young people reading the book, Lewis cleverly explores how it is not dissimilar to anywhere a child is growing up, in that there are the same battles and choices – the intertwining of community, loyalty, family and friendship.

Lewis writes with terrific empathy, eking out the reader’s sympathy for different characters at different stages of the novel, and she also evokes an extremely visual landscape, at the same time as propelling the plot – it darts along swiftly.

A captivating read that will make you think, and also imagine that you’re striding across the moors, scanning the sky for dancers. You can buy it here.

Hide and Seek by Anthony Browne

Antony Browne is a long-time stalwart of the children’s illustration scene, so it’s always a pleasure to embrace a new book of his. Hide and Seek bears all the attributes for which Browne is so acclaimed – seeing the dark side of ordinary, playing with perspective and the seen and unseen, exploring the liminal between light and dark. So it’s most fitting that the book deals with the childhood game of Hide and Seek.

Siblings Cy and Poppy have lost their dog in the woods. To distract them from their sadness, they start to play a game of hide and seek with each other. Poppy counts to ten while Cy hides. The reader sees them both – Poppy seeking and Cy hiding. By the end, the dog is found, the game finishes and comfort is restored.

But there’s so much more to this picture book than the description implies. It’s all about the seeking and what’s hidden.

There is something playful already in choosing such an ordinary staple childhood game, which has a lengthy history, and Browne lets the shadows in, allowing room for the dark side of this familiar game. One only has to look at historical depictions of the game in paintings to see that the very idea of hiding and seeking can be played with itself. Tchelitchew’s painting from 1942 displays an enormous amount of ambiguity in the hiding among the trees, likewise Meyerheim’s famous hide and seek game also takes place in a forest, with a child summoning the idea of fairy tales in the woods, as she hides behind a red shawl next to her picnic basket. There is menace in the entire concept.

 

The reason so many depictions of Hide and Seek games are set within woodlands is why Browne has chosen the route himself. Of course there’s a nostalgia for childhoods spent playing in wooded areas, but there’s also the startling effect of light and shade to be found among trees – what light seeps through the canopy and what doesn’t, and so leading on from that the feeling of menace that accompanies it. There’s a fear playing hide and seek in the woods – the fear of not finding whom you are seeking, or of not being found yourself. And the limitless space. A fear that just doesn’t exist inside a house (see Tissot’s 1877 painting Hide and Seek).

Browne’s brilliant picture book plays on these menacing fears. Strange shadows leap up behind the children. In places, the trees appear elongated and towering to further highlight Poppy’s fear. And Browne uses light deliciously to evoke menace at times – throwing shadows of logs across faces or illustrating the depth of the woods stretching out into darkness, but yet also showing safety and warmth with his vibrant tones of yellow when Cy is found, and green when the children return home. This last page holds so much – the light emanating from the caravan in the middle – with the implications of safe adulthood held in the large wellington boots by the door, the friendliness of the plants and flowers, the comfort of the tea cup on the table. Furthermore, it brings together the urban and rural with the towerblock peeking through the trees at the rear.

Throughout the book, Browne not only invokes the darkness that can lie in everyday life, but also provides elements of fun for the young reader – there is an assortment of items (listed at the back of the book) to find among the pages, items that slide out from the shadows and bend reality – whether it is a tap hidden among the branches, the shape of a giraffe among the trees, wood knots and knarls that look like common objects.

This tips the illustrations into surrealism territory, something for which Browne is famous, but it also provokes the question as to what each individual sees. When you read it with different children, they all spot different things at different times, and often, things that you certainly didn’t see first time round. In this way it’s all about ambiguity and perspective – the act of looking and the patterns within the world.

It’s also the perfect book for autumn – the lush carpet of red, brown and yellow leaves on the forest floor almost emit the crunch underfoot. You can play your own game of hide and seek here.

 

The Lost Words by Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris

the lost words
This week, out of curiosity, and stemmed from my admiration of a heartfelt and well-crafted newspaper article on the attempt to reconnect children with words to describe nature, I ordered one of the largest, most beautiful books I’ve ever seen from my local bookshop. The publishers are at pains to point out that it’s not just for children, but for all, and I would concur. This week’s book of the week is for you as much as for your child.

The Lost Words by Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris is an oversize book of ‘incantations’ or poems, highly illustrated in full-colour, laid out as an ABC of nature, featuring such words as fern, heron, kingfisher, newt and willow. Publishers often talk about whether a pairing of author and illustrator works – Dahl and Blake, Simon and Ross. Here, the force of the words matches the force of the illustrations in the most exquisite way.

Perhaps Morris set out to create a work of paintings to rival the beauty of nature itself – a paean at least. And indeed the artwork is literally breath-taking – I gasped at the first spread on which I opened the book – the branches and leaves stood out as if in 3D. The capture of light on a glowing conker is mesmerising. The layering of the artwork, the exquisite capturing of nature in flux and flight is simply stunning. And there is a thread of gold running through the book – gold foil on the cover – and gold within that marks the book as a ‘treasure’, as something more than mundane. Macfarlane points out that it is reminiscent of medieval illuminated manuscripts, and indeed it implies that what is contained within is to be held in reverence – as with nature itself.

The book runs through an ABC (although some letters are used more than once) of acrostic poems, ‘incantations’, all related to nature. Each subject is attributed three spreads – an illustrated word lost, the poem and illustration, and then a spread depicting the subject within a landscape. Or, in more poetic language – the word slipping away, the summoning poem, and the word being spelled back.

When Macfarlane speaks, (having heard him on the radio), it’s like a tumbling bubbling river running over rocks; he speaks fast as if the words are so numerous he is desperate to give them voice. This is one way of reading the ‘incantations’ held within the book, just hearing the sounds the words make, like a playful witch’s spell, an inner prayer to nature, a chanting even. Indeed, it is anticipated that these ‘incantations’ are to be spoken aloud. Yet another way of reading these acrostic poems is to savour every chosen word – for chosen they most certainly are. The individual vocabulary, the way the words meet each other in phrases, the space around the words on the page.

The poems reflect diversity in their literary artistry. The incantation to the bluebell uses the metaphor of water when thinking about the blue of bluebells. On the next page the picture shows the woodland floor awashed in blue, looking almost like the sea – only the fox prowling through and an owl in flight keep the image grounded among the trees.

The fern breathes with alliteration on the ‘f’ sounds, and Macfarlane uses consonance with the ‘l’ and ‘r’ sounds. The heron incantation explores the relationship between urbanity and nature with its steel metaphor.

There is a duality to the given title of the book. Partly, Morris’s and Macfarlane’s inspiration came following the news in 2015 that around 50 words connected with nature were being cut from the Oxford Junior Dictionary because they had fallen out of use. Almond, blackberry and crocus made way for analogue, block graph and celebrity as long ago as 2007. Naming, as Macfarlane points out, is essential: “We do not care for what we do not know, and on the whole we do not know what we cannot name.” This naming returns the lost words to our vernacular. But, the words of the landscape speak not only to knowledge, but also to the history of the land, the cultural and rural identity of the words we use to describe things.

I would argue that the title also speaks to the reader who will get lost within the book, because the words and artworks are so powerful, so intoxicating. It has the power both to immerse the reader but also to enthrall the reader and entice them to look around them at the outside world.

It’s a big and heavy book, quite difficult to shelve, but that’s probably because it’s not meant to be shelved. It’s meant to lie around the house or garden or field, open and inhaled. At this size and potency, it certainly won’t be lost. You can buy it here.

 

The Snow Angel by Lauren St John, illustrated by Catherine Hyde


Writers love to inflict great harm on their characters – the more dramatic their downfall, the more a novel can pack a punch. And Lauren St John’s latest novel certainly puts her main character to the test. Sadly, it was the all-too-real plight of orphaned and abandoned children in Zimbabwe (those who have lost parents, become war children or refugees), which inspired St John to pen The Snow Angel. However, like all good children’s literature, it not only reflects the world but strives to find a positive note, an optimistic resolution, showing the goodness that can be found too.

Eleven-year-old Makena lives happily in Nairobi with her mother and father, and like her father (who is a mountain guide), she adores the mountains, and she hopes that one day, with his help, she will climb Mount Kenya. But, as can sometimes happen in life, one day everything she knows turns upside down, and she is orphaned and alone, and St John shows the reader just how far children can fall in a flash.

Although Makena is taken in by a family member, she is treated abhorrently, and runs away, managing (just) to carve a life for herself in the Nairobi slums. Here, surprisingly, St John changes perspective briefly to a third person adult point of view, an unusual proposition in a children’s book, to explore the narrative from a rescuer’s viewpoint. Makena, seemingly, is in too much danger and too weak to view what happens next. The introduction of an adult’s perspective here (Helen, a woman rescuing children from the slums) gives the reader a new insight and, then, once switched back to Makena, shows how redemption can come, although slowly, and happy endings abound.

The issues within this book are many and layered, and yet the reader never once feels as if they are reading an ‘issue’ book. The book touches upon ebola, famine, child soldiers and the like, explaining the reason for the multitude of children living alone in the slums, but far stronger than the issues is St John’s evocation of the setting – the beauty of the African mountains, the colour of the fruits and scents of food at roadside vendors, the wonder of flowers and plants, and the overriding sense of the healing power of nature.

Lauren St John keeps eking out pockets of hope even in the midst of Makena’s deeply despairing situation. From the friendships she forges around her, to the talk of inspirational people, to the optimism she encounters that shows her a way forward. This is mainly down to a character called Snow, another child all alone, who teaches Makena how to find the good in things – how to have ambition and believe in a future, and to see the magic in everything.

There is, in fact, not a blatant magic in the book, but a subtle undercurrent of coincidence, folklore, superstition and in the end, an animal that seems to be able to show Makena the right path, physically and spiritually. As with real life, there is wonder in the world if you look for it. This is brought to life not only by the story, but by Catherine Hyde’s subtle interspersed black and white illustrations, which increase the idea of magic, nature and this sense of wonder.

But overall, and what drives the narrative, is not just the goodness and kindness pointed out by St John, but the vivacity of the characters. Each child, in their struggle to survive, shows believable tenacity and courage, and each adult is rounded and real – not completely selfless, not completely faultless, and when it comes to the ‘baddies’, not completely evil. The characters are as diverse and vibrant as the settings.

Not every book is written for a reason, other than that there’s a great story to tell – but beneath the story the reader can tell that St John is attempting to influence her readers – getting them to see changes that can be made for a better future. The hardback copy comes complete with a ribbon bookmark, and you’d do well to bookmark the acknowledgements too, in which St John mentions a few ways in which children too could try to have a positive impact on the world, even if they don’t write their own novels. It’s an inspiring list, which I think Makena would try hard to complete. A great story, easy to read, and swiftly devoured. For age 9+ years. You can buy it here.

Please note that I carried out some paid work for the publisher on the above title, but this is no way influenced my review of the book.

Struggling Readers

I don’t particularly like to label children according to their reading ability or enthusiasm, but sometimes you have to address certain truths. There are some children who tell their parents they don’t like reading; there are children who only attend library club when I lay on a football activity; there are others who wouldn’t come even if I gave out sweets and free ipads (okay, well maybe…)

I wanted to showcase a few books that are intended for these children who demonstrate reluctance or difficulty with reading. These books are all short in pages, but their content is so stunning that they deserve to be read by the most fluent and able readers too – some of the most pleasurable recent reads of mine have been from this little flock of gems written by a cohort of amazing authors.

Rook by Anthony McGowan
Stunning, compelling – like a refreshing immersive cold water dip in the middle of a heatwave – McGowan’s prose shocks and stuns the reader with its intensity, emotional power, and yet magnificent brevity.

The last of a trilogy, following Brock and Pike, (although each could be read as a standalone), I think this last is my favourite. When Nicky and his brother Kenny rescue a rook from a sparrow hawk’s hunt, Kenny is determined to keep it alive. But Nicky has other problems on his mind: avoiding the bullies at school, and pursuing his crush on a girl.

Readers familiar with the first two titles will understand that Nicky hasn’t had life easy. He takes care of his brother, Kenny, who has special needs, and they both lived through some hard times after their mum left and their Dad faced criminal charges, poverty, and depression. McGowan shines a light on the reality of Nicky’s situation without ever descending into tragedy or sentimentality. In fact, this author has a real flair for portraying the mind of a teenage boy – the emotional ups and downs, the anger, the teen boy’s view on life’s practicalities.

But the wonder of this book, as with the others in the series, is the structure – McGowan’s use of nature to both contrast with the urbanity of the boys’ lives, but also to show how close to nature humans are – making the parallel between the beaver baiting in Brock, the hunting of the rook in Rook, and the base human interactions between bullies and the bullied. And poverty may invoke survival mode, but McGowan also shows how the kindnesses shown to animals in the stories reflects the kindnesses in human relationships too.

Furthermore McGowan beautifully acknowledges modern day Britain, as well as providing that subtle continuity between the books. In Brock, Nicky visits the library for essential information, but by Rook, when he visits the library for sanctuary, the opening hours have been vastly reduced, and it is closed.

The book is gritty and realistic, with arresting prose (the description of the rook being hunted is breathtaking), and the content lends meaning and purpose to young people’s lives. Literature at its best. For 8+ years to teen. You can buy it here.

All about Ella by Sally Nicholls
Something for the much younger with this exquisitely crafted small tale about sibling love. Ella wants to know on which day she was born, because she’s just learnt the poem: “Monday’s child is fair of face,”. Her parents can’t remember which day, and to her chagrin are preoccupied with Ella’s sick brother, which is always the case because he is ill. The book takes the reader through Ella’s week, accompanied by Hannah Coulson’s supremely emotive illustrations. Although the book exudes a quiet simplicity with its simple language constructs and vocabulary, an emotional depth screams loudly from within. The slightness of the book betrays how deeply affecting it is. And young children will delight in the use of the poem to construct the narrative. Nicholls fans will recognise the characters from Ways to Live Forever. For age 6+ years. You can buy it here.

Ballerina Dreams by Michaela and Elaine DePrince, illustrated by Ella Okstad
A true story that charms from the cover with delightful illustrations by Ella Okstad. This easy-to read-small chapter book tells the true background of the ballerina Michaela dePrince. In a matter-of-fact style, it describes how she was brought up in an orphanage in Sierra Leone, but then became one of the world’s leading ballerinas. Along with a sterling message that hard work and persistence pay off, this book highlights a young woman defying expectations and rising to the top of her field. Charming illustrations tame the harsh reality of Michaela’s early years, and later in the story the pictures demonstrate ballet moves. This is a fresh breath of air in the ‘pink tutu’ genre, and highlights a quite remarkable story of grit and resilience. For age 6+ years. You can buy it here.

Fame Thing by Jonathan Meres
As I said before, football can draw certain reluctant readers into books. And this clever story turns preconceptions on their head. George is obsessed with football, so when wonder star Dean moves into George’s village, she’s ecstatic. He has a ‘media’ reputation as being rather a bad boy, so will he behave himself in their quiet village? There’s much to admire in this book, not only for leading with a girl protagonist who’s into football, but also the clever reveal of Dean’s real character, the issues around being famous, and the excellent dialogue. Meres has an ear for how kids banter. Premiership writing. For age 8+ years. You can buy it here.

Good Dog McTavish by Meg Rosoff, illustrated by Grace Easton
There’s something about the ease with which Rosoff pens a story that lets even the most struggling reader enter a new world. Told in a wryly omniscient voice, this is a quirky tale of what happens to a family when the mum (who has been doing everything) goes on strike by only doing yoga. While the house goes to the dogs, and the family members are firmly in the doghouse, it is left to McTavish, a rescue dog, to save the family.

Even in this short story, each member of the family has a defined purpose, personality and agenda, and there is a lesson too – to be responsible for at least yourself, if not for others around you. With Rosoff’s dry wit, and her ability to pick up on the foibles of modern living, this is a distinctive droll tale. Well worth wagging. Age 8+ years. You can buy it here.

Mind the Gap by Phil Earle
Lastly, but by no means at the end of the line is Earle’s novel, inspired by a news article. Not holding back, Earle writes about teenagers who drink, swear (although the words aren’t printed in the book), and get into fights, but they have depth of personality that packs a punch to the reader.

Mikey and his best mate live in London on an estate. When Mikey’s Dad Vinny dies, Mikey is overcome with grief, and has no outlet to express it. Luckily he has a best mate who sees his pain and tries to help. Mikey can’t remember what his Dad’s voice sounds like, so his best mate tries to find a recording of it – Vinny was an aspiring actor with a talent for ‘doing voices’. Finding a recording is harder than his mate thinks, but eventually, after a wild goose chase, he hears something on the tube platform that might help.

Although the plot resolution is pretty obvious from the title, this is a great exploration (in a brief form) of young men attempting to deal with grief and remembrance, and navigating a modern London of hard knocks and tough choices. For teens with a younger reading age. You can buy it here.