nature

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.

 

Earth Day Books

So, time to admit to you, I don’t normally celebrate Earth Day. I did rejoice in 2016 at the signing of the Paris Agreement on Earth Day, but hadn’t taken much notice of it until now.

As a Londoner, noticing increasing noise about air pollution, and as a human being, noticing that some politicians seem to be disregarding climate change altogether, Earth Day seems ever more important. It takes place annually on April 22nd, and aims to demonstrate support for environmental protection.

So two books for your youngsters to show them the wonders of our Earth, but in very different ways.

The Earth Book by Jonathan Litton, illustrated by Thomas Hegbrook

Aptly named for Earth Day, The Earth Book is large and comprehensive, although also of course, highly selective. In fact, this is one of the issues with children’s nonfiction. There is so much knowledge to impart to children, and only limited time to draw their attention, and limited pages within a book. So, although Litton has attempted to explore Earth in this large format illustrated book, he has had to be highly selective in his material, and in some places this shows up weaknesses.

Overall though, knowing children who love to dip into this kind of crammed information book, there is still plenty to admire.

Litton lays out the premise of the book at the beginning – to attempt to explore the physical Earth, then life on Earth, the regions, and finally the human element of the planet – yes – all this in one book.

With quotes from Carl Sagan, Mahatma Ghandi, and others introducing sections, the book shows that it is as much about dreaming and inspiration as stating fact. And Litton’s conversational tone helps to lighten the load. There are complex ideas and concepts here, which Litton delivers in an accessible way – explaining the layers of the atmosphere for example, or the layers of the Earth down to the core, and later on in the book, extremophiles and ocean zones.

Hegbrook’s graphics are a delight for the most part, the diversity of the illustrations capturing some of the diversity of the Earth, but overall, sadly they are quite dark, not perhaps as pastel-toned as they could be, and so the text (small for older eyes) is hard to read against the dark backgrounds. The animals are a little dead-eyed, although the challenge thrown to the illustrator in terms of the amount of different information he has to delineate (from volcano structures to recognisable human portraits) was clearly tough.

My main concern in terms of selecting material are the choices of influential humans – to include the maker of the windscreen wiper in such a selective group seems strange to me, but there is a wealth of information on human impact upon the planet, speculation for doom as well as hope, and a fascinating choice of interesting cities. There is a factual error (regarding New Zealand penguins), but mainly the facts seem on point.

Despite the few weaknesses, I did enjoy reading the book. There is a distinct feeling throughout that although each of us is a tiny speck on this great and awesome planet, we bear a responsibility towards the planet on which we live. A good message to carry through. You can buy it here.

If The Earth Book makes you feel small but important, this next book from Nosy Crow publishers in conjunction with the National Trust, will make children feel active, important, and part of their surroundings.

50 things to Do Before You’re 11 and ¾ (illustrated by Tom Percival) was published last year, but lasts throughout childhood. Perusing the pages with an urban-dwelling ten year old, we discovered that she had accomplished about three quarters of the activities already, and the other quarter of ideas gave her inspiration and aspiration.

It’s kind of laid out like a tick list, with a signature space for each activity accomplished – and these range from such pleasures as ‘climb a tree’ to ‘find some frogspawn’. It’s the kind of list that Topsy and Tim accomplished quite happily during my childhood, and that some parents may find condescending, and yet with statistics showing that our children are less and less likely to spend time playing and exploring outside, I can’t help but feel this is a necessary and apt guide.

The book is well-designed – with an attached elastic bookmark, a pocket pouch at the rear, and many many colourful pages inside, lots to fill in, as well as a quiz to see what type of adventurer the child is, and puzzles towards the back. If planning a day out or a road trip, it would be a perfect companion. I’m a little older than 11, but I’ve never done number 38. I think it’s time I did. Buy the book here to see what number 38 is, and tick off all 50 yourself.

 

 

The Lumberjack’s Beard by Duncan Beedie

I’m often asked – what makes a good picture book? There are so many elements it’s hard to be so prescriptive, but this book certainly ticks lots of the boxes. With a stunning main character, lashings of food, fun with language, a slightly distorted silly reality and a green message, this book won me over (and my little testers).

Lumberjacks are great fodder for stories – they appear in fairy tales – from the woodcutter who saves Red Riding Hood, to, in some versions, Hansel and Gretel’s father. The idea of the lumberjack links to a shared cultural past – the history of when men cut down trees by hand rather than by machine, and also a bygone era in which they embodied ideals of masculinity – strength, solitude, and a conflicted solidity in common with the trees they were about to fell. Of course, many of you, me included, will launch into Monty Python’s Lumberjack song at about this point in my blog. “I’m a lumberjack and I’m okay….”

In The Lumberjack’s Beard, the protagonist is Jim Hickory, a lumberjack who lives in a stunning mountainous landscape populated with a plethora of triangular trees, eats a stack of pancakes each day (I’m sure Duncan Beedie knows that Lumberjack Day is synonymous with Pancake Day in the States) before venturing outside his log cabin and starting work for the day, chopping down trees.

But when the woodland creatures lose their homes, they demand a new place, and although Jim offers his beard as a new home, there comes a time when it all gets too much for him. A better solution is needed.

The language is great – not only do we hear the noise Jim makes when he fells a tree, but also this is an extremely active man. He does his limbering exercises before his lumbering job, but he also swings and cleaves and whacks and hacks. He chops and snaps…the vocabulary is pitched perfectly – it fits the story and adds to the excitement.

But as with all great picture books, it’s the illustrations that need to come up trumps. Beedie not only has the main illustrations serving his purpose well – from the colours that emphasise the woodland feel of the story, to the expressions of his characters, (an indignant porcupine, an outraged bird, and an incredulous beaver), but he also pays attention to the small details: Jim’s mug, the bird’s glasses, the variety of textures between the animals, Jim’s beard, and Jim’s comfortable dwelling – his bed cover, his shirt etc.

Of course, the message at the end is that planting trees to replace those he is cutting is the ultimate solution, and it even shows the patience taken in doing so. The reader too is encouraged to have patience – lingering over the spread in which the seasons change allowing the trees to grow – so that they can spot the animals’ various activities in the different weathers.

This is a thwumping story, full of passion, humour and heart, and sure to become a new favourite. You can buy a copy here.

Highest Mountain Deepest Ocean by Kate Baker and Zanna Davidson, illustrated by Page Tsou

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The introduction to this over-size book tells the reader that it is a story of superlatives. The longest this, the largest that. It’s a celebration of the natural world, exploring amazing feats of nature, wonders around us, and inspirational marvels, all illustrated in a calming and muted colour palate, with intricate pencil work and astute attention to detail.

There’s no narrative to this book, it’s just a collection of facts, which many children will adore. But some pages do hold longer explanations, for example describing lunar and solar eclipses. What’s lovely about the text though, is that as well as being told in fairly simple explanations, there is a luscious sample of descriptive vocabulary, so that eclipses are ‘eerie’ and mountains are ‘majestic’. Temperatures can be ‘scorching’ while gases ‘spew’ through space. There are also touches of folklore here and there, weaving stories with facts.

But this is a book in which visual illustrations rule, obvious from the cover where the illustrator, not the author is credited. Illustrations are not to scale, nor all scientifically accurate – this book is about visual beauty leading the reader into the book, in the same way that the visual beauty of the world can give pause for further thought. And yet it also feels rather museumy, as if the Natural History Museum has come into your house, which is no bad thing. Illustrations are all captioned, sometimes with a label, sometimes a key, but no picture is superfluous to the whole – each illustration has a reason for its placement.

The book also gives an insight into cross-references, for example under the heading ‘Burrowing Animals’, it not only explains the deepest living animal ever found and at what point, but also, on the same page, extrapolates the deepest point ever visited by humans (there’s not much difference between the two measurements), as well as the deepest tree roots – so comparisons can be easily made and wondered at.

Stunning to look at, particularly the world’s largest butterflies, and the page entitled ‘Hottest, Coldest, Driest, Wettest Places’, which takes a round intersection of the Earth with different parts of the semi-circle annotated as to the four extremes. It’s a book that immerses the reader in a compendium of facts, as well as presenting the information in a way that feels almost historical, almost classical in approach.

It is part of the new golden era of children’s non-fiction, enticing children to make discoveries about scientific facts through beautiful presentation. It certainly sucks me in every time. A perfect holiday gift. Age 8+ years.

You can buy a copy here.

Animal Non-Fiction

I have been wondering about the ratio of children’s non-fiction books about animals, to children’s books about anything else. So many seem to feature animals – in the same way that picture books often use animals as a way of exploring human foibles, or pointing out the differences between humans and animals in a subconscious way. For children, animals can be the way into various topics – geography about where they live, how the food cycle works, our emotions and behaviour (through the differences and similarities with animals), the way we portray animals in art and photography, and the environment and how human behaviour affects it. Animals are an excellent frame of reference. After watching David Attenborough’s Planet Earth 2 with children, it’s easy to see how exciting animal life can be.

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Martin Brown’s Lesser Spotted Animals
From the illustrator of Horrible Histories comes this adorable non-fiction approbation to all the brilliant beasts that never quite make it into your average animal encyclopedia. Who needs further facts about flamingos or information about iguanas when you can read about the Lesser Fairy Armadillo, the Dagger-Toothed Flower Bat or the Yellow-Footed Rock-Wallaby? The latter is not a pop star wannabe, just a wallaby.

Funny from the book’s dedication onwards, Brown separates the ‘celebrity animals’ we all know and love, such as the koala, from the animals featured in his book. Each creature receives a double page spread, with a large illustration and accompanying text and facts – size, eating, habitat, status etc. The text is informative, but also a cry for help – as some of them are endangered.

Brown gives each illustration its own animal personality – with rolled eyes, or sneaky smiles or in the Gaur’s case, a death stare. This makes the book wonderfully amusing at the same time as hugely memorable and informative. I can definitely picture many eight year old children entertaining me with their facts about creatures who may sound made up, but actually exist. It’s telling that this was one of my review copy books that was appropriated by a child almost immediately. I learnt that a male lesser fairy armadillo is called a lister. (if you follow me on Facebook, you’ll see why that tickled me). Buy a copy here and have a good giggle.

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Wilderness: An Interactive Atlas of Animals by Hannah Pang, illustrated by Jenny Wren
Although not purporting to do anything particularly new in the realms of children’s non-fiction, this is a particularly appealing book for the young non-fiction readership. It firmly places animals within their geography, teaching chosen facts about specific animals, as well as placing them within their habitats so that everything from common animals to more exotic, surprising species are highlighted.

Each page is a different environment, from Desert to Fresh Water, for example, and species within the latter include the common frog and the kingfisher as well as the diving bell spider, which spends its whole life underwater. What’s particularly appealing is the 3D visual interactive features of each page – in Fresh Water, the common frog is bullet-pointed with facts about the tadpole-to-frog-story, but enhanced by the visual spinning wheel which illustrates each stage, complete with matching bulleted-numbers for easy reference.

The page on the Hot Savannah features such beauties as the African thorn tree and the sociable weaver bird, but also encourages the reader to go on safari themselves, as hiding beneath the camouflaging grass illustration is information about the grass itself and the lion and zebra. One ostrich egg opens to reveal the number of hen eggs to which it is equivalent in size. Read the book to find out!

Few readers will forget which pole is where, as the Arctic sits firmly on top of the Antarctic -the latter being portrayed upside down.

The first page gives a quick guide introduction – explaining the definition of habitat, giving a key to the different types, and explaining the hemispheres, but all in very simple basic language that is easy to understand.

Each page is a hardy cardboard, allowing for the 3D visual elements – such as the pop-up mountain, but also lending a longevity to this colourful, and thoughtfully put-together animal book. You can buy a copy here.

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Secrets of the Sea: Discover a Hidden World by Kate Baker, illustrated by Eleanor Taylor
The sort of children’s book that doubles as a coffee table manual, or a tome that could be smuggled under the duvet and inspire future generations of marine biologists. From the publishers of Botanicum, Animalium and Historium, comes a new scientific study in illustration – life beneath water.

From rockpools along the shore, to the deepest depths of the ocean, Eleanor Taylor zooms in on fascinating sea dwellers to show the reader the intense beauty and incredible detail of a rarely photographed or illustrated world.

Each page is given over to a different species, from the wondrous pygmy seahorse, ordinarily only 2 cm in size, here magnified to over 20 times, and in a glorious illustration that shows it clinging to its host sea fan by its tail. Text details are given alongside – from its size to Latin name, behaviour, habitat and other facts. The reader can look at even more minute creatures though, such as the 2 mm in size sea butterfly – a marine snail that uses its heart-shaped muscular foot as a pair of wings.

Or perhaps, look at something larger, but under a microscope. Taylor illustrates fish gills as seen under a microscope – they look like feathers, or leaves from an exquisite tree.

The book is split into sections – swimming from the Shallows, through Sea Forests, Coral Gardens and finally into the Deep. The use of background colour throughout the book reflects this, so that by the time the reader is studying creatures in the deepest part of the ocean, the book has turned almost black, yet with a grainy bubbles feeling, a swooshy watery sensation so that the pages almost look as if they are floating in water.

The artworks are a combination of various forms including ink and charcoal, although coloured digitally, and the effect is quite mesmerising. Seeing images in such microscopic detail does make the reader think twice about what exactly it is they are looking at – zooming in at such an intensity magnifies the beauty.

The text is informative, but also fairly descriptive – definitely aimed at a confident and learned reader. However, even the youngest sibling may be enamoured by the description and picture of ‘sea sparkle’, a single-celled organism that lights up the sea at night – otherwise known as ‘sea fire’ or ‘sea ghost’. Who wouldn’t be won over? This is very stunning-looking non-fiction book to inspire future generations and delight older ones. Age 8+ years. Buy your copy here.

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Supersearch Adventures: On the Trail of the Whale by Camilla de la Bedoyere and illustrated by Richard Watson, and Where is the Bear? By Camilla de la Bedoyere and illustrated by Emma Levey
Doubling as an activity book and fact book, this is another non-fiction book in which the reader learns through play and fiction narrative.

The fold out glossy cover flaps show panoramic artwork and creature spotting tick boxes to work through as the reader goes through the book. On the Trail of the Whale follows Otto the Octopus as he tries to find his best friend Hula the humpback whale, whilst Where is the Bear? follows Suki the hare looking to deliver a present to a bear called Ping.

Both books allow the reader to traverse through particular landscapes spotting animals that live there, and finding out facts about them.

The drawings are cartoon-like and colourful, appealing well to the target readership, children aged five and over. The instructions are rhyming, but the facts written clearly, as speech bubbles from the various creatures. The story nicely splits up the facts, so that there is plenty of movement on each page – the adventure doesn’t stop.

There are even some maths problems lineated inside the book, asking the reader to work out numbers of legs and suchlike. Fun, bright, and following a simple narrative. Buy On the Trail of the Whale here and Where is the Bear? here.

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Knowledge Encyclopedia Animal
It may not feature the lesser fairy armadillo, but this is a fairly comprehensive look at the animals of the world, using computer-generated artworks to capture the variety of the animal world, and the details of each individual animal.

Starting with the basic question of what is an animal, the book then breaks it down into classification and explores types of animals with sections on invertebrates, fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals – colour-coded for ease. Fully comprehensive, there is a scale for sizing, glossary, and a section on general animal science, including parenting and migration.

As this is a DK encyclopedia, the text is accessible without being patronising. It’s not chatty but not too dry either. It feels like a hefty purchase, with a myriad of different ways of putting across information including factfiles, closeups, skeletons and diagrams.

There is lots of white space, illustrations that are sharply annotated and labelled with captions that give oodles of information. The text is concisely edited, giving the maximum amount of information in the fewest words.

The Galapagos tortoise double spread includes fact titbits such as the age it lives to, but also close up of growth rings, the armour plate, information on its bony carapace, its beak and rivalry, as well as the difference between its front and hind feet.

Fully checked by the Smithsonian Institute, the book has also been rigorously looked at to suit the national curriculum up to Key Stage 3, covering components such as habitats and ecosystems as well as senses and respiration. What an incredible way to learn. You can purchase your copy here.

 

Podkin One-Ear by Kieran Larwood, illustrated by David Wyatt

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If you want to buy your child a sumptuous book this autumn, which will inspire a love for storytelling, adventure and imagination, and one which has a wintery flavour, this is it.

Podkin One-Ear is a legend, a fearsome warrior rabbit with a reputation for fighting and winning against the Gorm (a dangerous and evil iron-flesh-clad rabbit breed that invades warrens and kills or captures those within). When a traveling bard arrives at Thornwood Warren on Bramblemas Eve, the bard is welcomed into the hall with its warming fireside glow and given food and drink in return for a tale of Podkin One-Ear. He tells the story of how the young Podkin fled his warren with his baby brother and older sister, how he lost his ear, and how he grows and learns until he is ready to fight back against the evil greedy Gorm. The bard’s version is not only enthralling, but far more realistic than his little rabbit listeners have heard before.

This is the classic story within a story – telling a fantasy tale of a family of rabbits turfed out from their home, seeking not only to escape the Gorm but to protect a sacred sword that bears good magic, and eventually to overcome the evil Gorm.

With influences of Watership Down (inevitable – there are rabbits on a quest against evil), and even Station Eleven (this is a dystopian future in which humans have clearly gone and all that is left is a landscape of scattered rabbit warrens, and travelling storytellers), this is a sumptuous tale that manages to pull on the emotions and remind readers of classic tales and classic tropes.

As well as the old traditions of storytelling (and Larwood intersperses the tale of Podkin with interlude chapters in which the Bard and his audience interact and discuss the role and purpose of storytelling), Larwood also introduces familiar traditional tropes from the human storytelling mould, such as there being 12 ancient tribes of rabbits with 12 handed down symbols (the magic sword being one of these), allusions to religion or a higher being (in this case a goddess), a warring balance of good vs evil magic, and the traditional make-up of families and the patriarchal royal lineage. All this adds to the feeling that the reader is digesting a classic tome.

If all this feels heavy, it isn’t at all. The bulk of the story follows three sibling rabbits, Podkin and his older sister and younger brother, as they escape from and finally fight the Gorm. The narration delves inside their heads so that the personification of the rabbits is complete, exploring their worries, fears, comforts and hopes.

There are familiarities for children too, as well as the old storytelling tropes, such as the hunt for painted carrots at Lupen’s Day at the start of spring, which of course parallels Easter egg hunts.

Larwood is particularly good on his observational details of his fantasy landscape. He insinuates that social skills are important for warren life – all those rabbits in such close proximity. He also, through various characters, makes poignant matter-of-fact philosophies on the painfulness of loss and death, and memories living on, as well as on bravery: “You don’t have to be brave or strong or powerful to do incredible things.” Larwood describes well the loss of Podkin’s ear and the aftermath of this loss, and Podkin’s observation about how quickly life can turn upside down.

Podkin is reflective without ever being insular, and is fully rounded – he bemoans the loss of his ear, and is bad-tempered, but shows depth of character in his recovery. His sister, Paz, is sensitive and empathetic. She makes astute observations about everyone they meet, most tellingly, with the ‘witch’ rabbit, Brigid, a grandmotherly figure who facilitates good magic restoring the balance with bad. Her relationship with the young rabbits portrays what the elderly traditional can teach the new upstarts, as well as pulling into the equation the benefits of folklore and understanding nature.

There’s some lovely language in the book, introducing vocabulary such as ‘scrying’ at the same time as playing with words to describe iron – a dangerous and evil substance in this fantasy landscape.

The storytelling is fluid, and feels like a cosy Christmas telling with interludes breaking tension, and the analysis of storytelling itself, which gives the book both a sense of history and depth.

Faber publishers have given this story the love it demands, pairing the tale with Wyatt’s beautiful black and white illustrations, so that every so often the reader is thrown into a whole page picture, showing depth and detail and throwing an added warmth and tenderness to some scenes, as well as displaying the Gorm’s menace in others. There are further nice illustrative touches – the constellations in the sky in rabbit shapes, the map of the landscape at the beginning.

But most of all, it feels as if there is a sprinkling of magic across this book. A modern, yet old-fashioned story that is captivating and comforting. Like a warm hug, this is a fantastic children’s book, with a cute little surprise at the end.

As the bard in the story says, “my bard’s memory filled it [the story] with little things that made it real. Everyday details. Feelings and sensations. Nothing but a piece of storytelling magic.”

For readers 9+ independently, earlier for sharing. Do buy it here.

How Botanicum Came to Life by Katie Scott

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I am delighted to host Katie Scott on the blog today. She previously illustrated Animalium, which was published to high acclaim in 2014. It was one of the new heavily illustrated and gorgeously presented non-fiction titles for children that have come to dominate this particular market. And now, Katie has returned with Botanicum, a glorious plant museum with 100 full colour pages, which brings Kew gardens into a child’s own bedroom – wherever it may be. 

Working on Botanicum has been such a wonderful process. When I first spoke to the publishers about the idea I couldn’t have been happier with the subject matter. Even though Animalium was an incredible book to work on, it’s the plant kingdom that has always been my strongest source of inspiration.

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Just before we started to plan out the book, I heard the news that Kew would like to be involved. And shortly after that, more good news that their Director of Science, Kathy Willis, would be interested in writing it! The association with Kew has brought the book to a different level than we could have achieved on our own. The resources there are incomparable to any others.

On my first day visiting I was shown a fern specimen, collected by Charles Darwin, in their Herbarium, which houses over seven million plant specimens. Their rare book and art archivist presented me with a selection of botanical prints and handwritten manuscripts, the earliest of which dates back to the 13th century. I’m fascinated by early science, and to see some of the earliest botany books on record was possibly the most inspiring way to start the Botanicum journey.

Many more days were spent in the gardens, and the nurseries, wandering around and collecting names of specimens I thought we should include. I like that the Botanicum cover refers to Kathy and myself as ‘curators’. I feel that’s an accurate description of how the project came together. The list of plants we included were very much curated, and in a very collaborative way. Some I would insist on having, others were ‘must haves’ for Kathy . And in this way I think we have made a collection that includes the most visually fascinating, scientifically interesting and historically important.

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In total I think the book took about six months for me to illustrate. Which is nearly double the time it took to create Animalium. There is so much more detail and I think plants as a subject simply take me longer to draw. I wanted the book to show the diversity of shapes and colours in the plant / fungi kingdoms, and for each page to feel different from the last: whether that’s the twisting and flowing composition of Creepers and Vines, or the linear and structured layout of Bulbs. We were also quite keen to give a few plants the space to sit alone, which was granted to Ginkgo (genetically quite isolated) and the Giant Water Lily, which seemed to warrant a solo page to highlight the incredible size and beauty of its leaf.

With thanks to Katie for her insight. You can buy the book here

A Nature Story: Bees, Fish and Foxes

Some environmental good news last week when scientists declared that thinning in the ozone layer is starting to heal. But it’s not all good. Whilst the Friends of the Earth are now calculating our bee population for 2015-2016, there has been a serious decline in bee populations over the last few years.

Bees are essential to our way of life. They pollinate plants and are a crucial part of our food cycle. In fact, 85 per cent of the UK’s apple crop relies on bees.

But how to explain this to children? Britta Teckentrup takes on the challenge in this beautifully colourful, highly visual exploration of the journey of a bee.

bee

Bee by Britta Teckentrup focuses on one bee, seen through a die cut hole on the cover, and revealed on a flower half way through, before being seen in another die cut hole, finally revealed atop a field brimming with plants and flowers.

Each spread is lovingly drawn with bursts of colour, from the poppies at dawn to the bright daisies, roses and foxgloves showing the bee alighting on different flowers. The text accentuates the bee’s journey explaining her intelligence – how she knows her route, how she navigates using the sun – but all in lush rhyming couplets. These hints about bee behaviour will inevitably lead to questions from readers afterwards, but during the reading they will be immersed and won over by the text, with lines such as:

“As she travels here and there,
A gentle thrumming fills the air.”

The vocabulary is startlingly effective in that it drops clues about the bee, but also takes on a soothing rhythm, as if the reader were lulled by the gentleness of a breeze in summer. Scientific facts are dropped like raindrops into the rhyme – including pollen carrying, and how bees leave a trace, and of course the most important denouement – that bees give life to all the plants and flowers. The double page spread shows a field teeming with colour – it’s really beautiful.

The die cut is hexagonal-shaped of course, which is just another question that the reader may want answered; reading this aloud to a group of children will demand some knowledge on behalf of the reader.

But in essence the book explores the symbiosis of bees and plants with a symphony of colour, and that’s good enough to provoke thought in any reader. You can buy it here.

the river

Look out too for The River by Hanako Clulow, with more rhyming text couplets by Patrica Hegarty. Working on a similar principle of a die cut hole with a magical swimming fish appearing throughout the book (via a hologram), the book explores the different fauna and flora that appear in the changing seasons in, and next to, a river. As the river flows through different landscapes and different times, the river follows the fish on a journey to the sea (complete with a sparkly shoal of fish). The readers who sampled this book with me were spellbound at the hologram and the glitter, and wanted re-reads for this purpose, but beneath the gloss is a nature tale worth telling, and sumptuous illustrations of wildlife scenes. You can buy it here.

the fox and the wild

Another environmental message is contained in a new picture book, The Fox and the Wild by Clive McFarland. Although experts cite that the number of urban foxes isn’t actually rising, there does appear to be a prevalence. However, this is more to do with behaviour than it is increasing populations. Foxes are becoming more used to humans, and braver. In my case, brazen, as they frolic in my garden in broad daylight. Also, of course, and more to the point of Clive’s picture book, our urban sprawl is becoming larger, so more foxes are ‘urban’ rather than dwelling in the wild.

Fred is a city fox in the book, but there are dangers and annoyances in the city. It’s polluted with smoke, there is noisy and dangerous traffic, and humans are unhappy with them. When Fred loses his pack, he longs for the freedom of the birds who can fly to the wild. But, after searching in vain, Fred wonders if ‘the wild’ truly exists.

Children will love the bold graphics of this book – the familiar city scenes, the camaraderie and conversation between different animals, and the juxtaposition of town and country. The depiction of the digger is particularly effective. McFarland cleverly plays on the different senses as he compares the noise of the city with its metal monsters to the sound of scurrying animals in the undergrowth; as well as polluted versus fresh air, and even the feel of the ground beneath the fox’s feet.

With a style reminiscent of Chris Haughton – those eyes – this is a new picture book to be cherished for content and style. You can buy it here.

Explore other websites looking at Bee on it’s blogtour.

bee blog tour

 

Under Earth, Under Water by Aleksandra and Daniel Mizielinski

under earth under water

As a children’s book reviewer, it’s difficult to balance non-fiction and fiction reviews. With a swift glance at my in-box, I think only about two per cent of the books I am sent are non-fiction titles, and many of those are requested, when actually non-fiction sales make up about 12 % of the market (excluding text books/study guides). At the moment there is reported growth in non-fiction across children’s publishing. For example, Penguin reported growth of 38% in their children’s non-fiction publishing in 2014.

It’s hard to work out what percentage of non-fiction sales are licensed titles, such as Minecraft and activity books, which also fall under non-fiction, and how many are actual fact books. However, luckily for me (and you) the non-fiction that does reach me tends to be of extremely high quality.

The latest is Under Earth, Under Water from the authors of Maps, and it is quirky, random, factual, and absurdly moreish.

It endeavours to portray segments of the Earth stretching down from the burrowing animals near the surface, through pipes, tunnels, caves, and mines, to the Earth’s core – and then, turning the book over – goes down again through the water’s surface – lakes down through the oceans, oil harvesting, human sea exploration and its history, and ending up just past the Mariana trench.

The Mizielinkskis have a distinct style of illustration and annotation (info bubbles, arrows and numbers) and have used it well here, depicting the narration with representatives of what they are trying to show rather than attempting illustrative likenesses. For example, the illustration of Sima Humboldt explains what a cool phenomenon it is, but motivates the reader to look up photographic evidence of it too.

In fact the entire book is inspirational non-fiction rather than pure factual telling. This may be one reason why the book doesn’t have a glossary – it’s a book for dipping into – finding out new discoveries, and then researching more if inspired.

The graphics work well in trying to explain scientific or geological happenings – especially sink holes, and buoyancy, both of which I stumbled across while ‘dipping’, because they aren’t chapter headings and I found them at random. Step by step illustrations explain both processes, and the accompanying text is simple and effective. For a non-scientist or growing child, the explanations are fascinating.

The authors/illustrators use of colours is fabulous too – the cover’s striking red and blue (one side earth, one side water), indicative of what’s inside. The coral reef is fairly vibrant, but colour is used most effectively in some of the diagrams – for example in explaining water systems below the earth, the authors use different tones for rain water, sewage, industrial waste, suspension and eventually clean water to explain how they all diverge and intersect.

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Some spreads are general in topic, whilst others, seemingly randomly, pick out specific examples. For example tunnels is general, then the authors describe specific metro systems. Similarly, mines are described in general, then the Mponeng mine is shown (with map) to illustrate the deepest mine. However, not all specific examples have maps, not all terms are explained in graphics.

All in all the cleverness of the duality of the book, the random selection of facts and information, the compulsion to revisit and find out more beguiled me. This is great family reference for inspiring knowledge; love of learning for its own sake, and inspiring future generations. This is not the answer to a specific google search, it’s an oversize exquisitely packaged bundle of information.

For age 6+ years, and you can buy it here.

The Wolves of Currumpaw by William Grill

wolves of currumpaw

For all the massively regurgitated history that our children devour at school – Henry VIII and his six wives, the first and second world wars, the Romans, there are billions of little historical stories that deserve to be given the insanely wonderful treatment that William Grill affords his books. Grill’s first book was Shackleton’s Journey – not an unknown story in itself – but one that Grill illustrated with distinction and flair.

Grill’s latest book is an all-round immersion into the little known story of 1892 New Mexico and the British naturalist Ernest Thompson Seton who is employed to hunt down a roaming wolf pack led by legendary pack leader, King Lobo.

This is a sumptuous absorption into the Wild West, with a map at the beginning placing the reader, and a wonderfully depicted opening, ‘The Old West’, with a full page illustration of the vista, in tones of red – smudged trees stretching in zigzags to give the perspective of depth and distance, with a mountain range and a red sky background. In the foreground, a small, almost ant-like pack of wolves roam the landscape. And the reader is transported.

There’s a warmth that emanates from the page because of the earthy tones used, but also from the love that has gone into the storytelling.

The story branches off using Grill’s now distinctive style of telling the narrative with both huge sweeping images, and also sets of tiny illustrations, almost like film stills in crayon, at first with sparse text, and then with image after image after image.

Grill’s brilliance comes from the fact that even by looking at one of his postage stamp illustrations, the reader can tell the character of the man they are reading about – we can see how the European settlers treated the indigenous peoples and animals, and the conflicts they faced. This is especially crucial for children who can visually read ideas and sense emotions that they might not be able to put into words: colonialism, survival, warfare, etc.

Small details abound – the train chugging into the distance, weaponry, deals being made.

As the story grows, so does the text, but the illustrations still bear that same attention to detail and attitude – the pack of wolves is illustrated – each wolf different from the last. The people too. Browns and blues are introduced into the colour palate, especially as the story heads to Seton in New York and gives the man’s background.

By the time Seton arrives in Clayton, the reader understands the type of man he is, the landscape he is entering, and the equipment he uses – all spread out neatly and illustrated item by item on the page – reminiscent of course of Shackleton’s Journey. This is different though in that it is clear to a modern reader that Shackleton was a hero, but here the reader is torn between rooting for our protagonist, but also for the wolf. In fact, Grill’s excellence is in making the reader feel empathy for both the hunted and the hunter.

In the end, of course, the book isn’t about violence, but about love. Just looking at Grill’s full page illustration of a sunrise evokes a deep pull at the reader’s inner emotions. The book quotes Seton and explains the inspiration he wields over such ecologists and writers as Sir David Attenborough and Aldo Leopold:

“Ever since Lobo, my sincerest wish has been to impress upon people that each of our native wild creatures is in itself a precious heritage that we have no right to destroy or put beyond the reach of our children” – Ernest Thompson Seton.

He would certainly be proud of this retelling. Grill has clearly researched impeccably, and succeeds in retelling history for a young generation in both highly illustrative detail and highly edited text. Includes also a glossary and wonderful endpapers.

Reading a Grill book is like immersing yourself in an experience. From the beautifully textured cover to the crayon renderings within, which a reader can’t help but rub their fingers over, as if the feelings and sentiments inside could be drawn up into the bloodstream. This is how history comes alive.

With thanks to Flying Eye Books for my copy. To buy your own click here.