nature

Girl. Boy. Sea. by Chris Vick

girl boy seaIn recent years, many a children’s author has been inspired to write a story influenced by the movement of refugees across the globe. The images of children traipsing their way across a dusty road, young boys hitching rides in dangerous places, girls shouldering too-heavy bundles across their backs. The plight of the refugee is one of survival against all odds; the issues of scarred pasts, horrors witnessed, uncertain futures, a sense of not belonging, an awakening of identity – all pose questions. To whom do we belong, to where? Who are we? And nowhere is the power of the individual more diminished than when faced with the might and terror of the sea.

Vick deploys these ideas with dexterity; deviating from them, twisting them, and showing their import against the backdrop of an ordinary, fairly privileged British boy who must also fight for survival.

Bill is sailing off the coast of Morocco with his peers when a storm hits, and he’s shipwrecked and abandoned in the ship’s small rowing boat. As the rations run low, a girl clinging to a barrel comes into sight across the waves. Together Bill and Aya, a Berber, navigate together, waiting for rescue, desperate for other humans. But mainly there is the water, and just their two minds. With the power of storytelling, and the inevitable human will to survive, this is a tense moving read about the growing bond between two desperate and vastly different people, and the lengths humans will go in order to live.

Told in the timeframe of the days and nights the two spend at the mercy of the sea, sunburnt, hungry, and scared, and on the precipice of life itself, Vick interweaves their days with Aya’s stories of Shahrazad and the Arabian Nights. The way the heroine prolonged her life at the hands of the king by playing on the king’s curiosity – his desire to know what happened next, night after night. In the same way that Bill and Aya persevere: Aya by telling stories and Bill by listening. Cleverly, Vick does the same with the reader – pulling us along on the journey, making us wait for the next piece of the survival story.

As Aya and Bill have to overcome their language and cultural differences, Vick shows the reader their compassion for each other – something that grows as their understanding of each other grows. This basic coming together mirrors the way their lives have been stripped down to the essentials – water, food, shelter. But also company. With each other, their purpose is stronger, their agency secure, their will to succeed strengthened.

Vick is clever in his storytelling. As with many tales of shipwreck and survival, the cast of characters can be thin, and stuck at sea the scenery the same for miles, and yet Vick draws out every nuance of their day to day, the shift of their bodies in the boat, the patterns of the ocean.

In fact, it is this last that really dazzles – the power of nature, both the strength of the sun and the changeable features of the sea. The author has a detailed knowledge of marine biology, and here it is put to excellent use in the scene with the whale, which is evocative and incredibly dramatic, but also used in Vick’s descriptions of the interminable endlessness of the ocean, and the emptiness when viewed just from a bobbing rowboat.

In a nuanced middle section, Vick also manages to weave in some moral ambiguity – a dangerous situation in which he enhances cultural differences and behaviours, the threats to women and minorities, the power of knowledge but also the power of making assumptions about a person because of their background.

By the end, some of the detail is graphic in the extreme, and yet unbelievably tender. Vick doesn’t shy away from the devastating rawness of the situation, but by leading the reader there, he also explores the deepest emotions. There is love as well as courage, hope matching despair.

Life is stripped to its essence – what do we know, how safe are we, can we find compassion to be the support system for someone who doesn’t even think in our language, who can’t begin to fathom how different our way of life is? And yet, each is simply human.

Vick easily places us in another’s shoes by transplanting Bill from his relatively safe and easy life into that experienced by a refugee, by making his protagonist embrace the grit it takes to survive, and doing it all with taut and distinct prose. This is a powerful, starkly told novel, which holds its tension to the end, and although simple in its essence, is as profound as the depths of the sea.

Age 10+. You can buy it here. With thanks to Zephyr for the review copy.

Animal Picture Books

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Garden of Lost Secrets by AM Howell

garden of lost secretsThere’s a noticeable rediscovering of nature in current children’s books. It’s the theme of the moment, maybe inspired by the fact that today’s children spend less time outside, and certainly less time being wild than they used to, or perhaps because they have less awareness of where their food comes from, yet at the same time a creeping alarm over climate change and how nature can wreak havoc if not nurtured.

The Garden of Lost Secrets from debut author AM Howell takes the reader back to 1916, when World War I is wreaking havoc on the human population, and urban children were sent away from the cities after Zeppelin airships flew overhead. Twelve-year-old Clara is sent to live with her aunt and uncle in Suffolk, not as a result of air raids, but rather because her father is convalescing after being gassed in the war.

Clara’s aunt and uncle are housekeeper and head gardener of an estate, living in a small cottage on the edge of the grounds. But rather than welcoming her kindly, her aunt in particular is austere and formidable, showing none of the kindness of her previous visits. What’s more, there’s a strange boy in the grounds at night-time, and an unopened letter from the War Office that Clara has intercepted in London and brought all the way with her.

As each day passes, more and more mysteries are presented, from the stealing of fruit from the gardens, to the appearance of mandarins in peculiar places, and a locked room in the house in which Clara is staying. Clara tries her best to be good, but the idea of solving the mysteries is too great a temptation to ignore, and before long her adventures are getting more than just herself into trouble.

This is a nostalgic, wonderfully atmospheric novel, taking the reader into a world in which, despite the war, children roam free, unhindered by parents and school, and everyday delights are simply the exploration of a large manor house’s grounds and greenhouses. Inspired by the real diaries from a 100 years ago of a gardener at Ickworth House in Suffolk, AM Howell has created a detailed, authentic imaginary tale.

The characterisation is spot on – from her pinafore to her small disobediences, Clara feels wholly from 1916; her head is consumed with worry for her family, but her heart is set on making everyone happy, and the reader is plunged inside her head, privy to all her thoughts. The secondary characters are equally well-drawn, with the layers of society firmly in place, the staff and their duties, the soldiers exercising in the woods nearby, and the ever-present over-arching fear about the war that consumes everyone, from the distance noise of gunfire to the threat of Zeppelins.

An abundance of period detail, including the cultivation of exotic fruits (pineapples) in hothouses, the damp coal cellars, and the features of the town, all transport the reader firmly to 1916, and open up a world of England on the home front, seen from a child’s perspective. There’s both knowledge, and yet still a profound innocence.

There is definitely a classic feel to this book, bringing to mind such greats as Tom’s Midnight Garden, although The Garden of Lost Secrets has a modern bent with its themes of the natural world, child sleuthing, and bravery. It is far pacier than The Secret Garden and other Edwardian literature, layering questions and mysteries in each short chapter, and only revealing the depths of the secrets near the end. With fresh modern writing, a sublime use of simile where needed, and extolling the virtues of the power of true friendship, this is an excellent new children’s novel, which is both gripping and fun.

For children aged 8+ years. You can buy it here. With thanks to Usborne for the review copy.

Playing with Time and Nature

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The House of Light by Julia Green

house of lightSometimes it’s the quiet books that have the most forceful impact. When I read Close to the Wind by Jon Walters, I understood that this understated book with its everyman tale of migration and movement was a thing of beauty. And now Julia Green has done the same with her timeless tale of stagnation and closed borders in The House of Light. As we move into a more politically uncertain time, filled with aggression and anxiety, this kind of book will resonate with young readers, but will also stir them with its moral integrity and innate sense of hope for the future.

Bonnie lives with her Granda on a wild coastland, where the sea is out of bounds and border guards patrol the area and keep tabs on who is attending school (and who isn’t!). When Bonnie is scavenging on the beach one day she finds an upturned boat, but realises it has been recently used. Before long, she discovers the owner – a bare-footed boy hiding from the authorities. In these lean times, he’s hungry and in need of shelter, so Bonnie harbours him, waiting for the day when he can take his freedom – and maybe she can too.

This beautifully written novel not only lays out the political foolhardiness of closing borders, denying citizens’ rights, and the rule of tyranny rather than compassion, but it also shows the differences that individual people can make. Bonnie learns more at home than at school, under the moral guidance of her Granda, and realises that it is appropriate to welcome strangers and mete out kindness rather than comply with rules that don’t make sense. In the current period of political language around migrants and refugees, this is particularly compelling.

More than this though, the book speaks to the wonder of creativity, and thus creative thinking. The schools impose strict timetables of arbitrary rule-learning rather than embracing any creativity of thought, and when Bonnie discovers a house in which art and liberty are celebrated, she sees that creativity and freedom are connected.

But most of all, it is the wildness of the natural world that shines through the book. The coastline is depicted with intense beauty as well as harshness – Bonnie learns the wonders of the woods near her house, the benefits of snow (over which a boat can be more easily pulled and when footsteps disappear), but most importantly, the use of nature to guide and to heal. Birds give Bonnie clues as to what’s going on, she learns to read the sea and the creatures within, and she understands when to take from nature for survival and when to let it grow and flourish. This is a timely children’s novel set in a world in which medicine no longer exists for people like Bonnie, and she must turn to nature for its healing plants and tinctures. Moreover, energy supplies and mass food production have disappeared too – and it is up to Bonnie and Granda to seek from the animals and from the land. This is about people in a modern world re-learning the earth, its natural resources and its wonders.

This is children’s literary fiction, and Green steadily guides Bonnie and the reader through the book with the metaphor of light highlighting principles. When to break the rules, and how the individual is important. Bonnie’s relationship with both the boy, Ish, and her Granda are drawn tenderly and evocatively. The reader feels her doubts and pain, her love and instincts. Although this is a simple story, it is well told, with underlying depth and memorable characters, and a tangible setting. It sears its message and vision into the reader’s mind.

The novel is indicative of the courage and hope this generation will need to take into the future, and is a hidden gem. I heartily recommend letting it light up your young reader. For ages 9+. You can buy it here.

Cover artwork by Helen Crawford-White. With thanks to OUP for the review copy.

Gardening and Nature: An Appreciation

In spring our thoughts often turn to nature and being outside. But our children are rarely outside. A 2016 survey found that three quarters of UK children spend less time outside than prison inmates, a fifth of children not playing outside at all on an average day.

Gardening is a wonderful skill for children, giving them the opportunity for responsibility as well as teaching them nurturing skills. But if, like me, you’re a gardening novice, barely knowing weed from flower, you may need some help.

sunflower shoots
Busy little Bees: Sunflower Shoots and Muddy Boots by Katherine Halligan and Grace Easton
is a children’s guide to gardening, in a handy covered-ring-bound format (the cover goes over the ring-binder). Aimed at pre-schoolers and their carers, it introduces the top ten plants for easy growing, and ten useful gardening words to accompany the activity – including ‘pollen’, ‘compost’ and ‘mulch’.

The bright and colourful pages give an array of activities, from sprouting baby beans to creating a window box, a bug spotter’s guide, and making compost. Some of my favourite bits are the ‘Did You Know’ boxes, including details such as photosynthesis, and how long it takes an oak tree to produce acorns. But also, the very funny and handy tips at the back just for grownups, including ‘Be a Secret Garden Gnome’ on how to keep up the smaller gardener’s morale.

This is a fun and fabulous introduction for first-time gardeners, encouraging time spent together enjoying nature. You can buy it here.

plant sow make and grow
Plant, Sow, Make and Grow: Mud-tastic Activities for Budding Gardeners by Esther Coombs
is aimed at primary school age children and is neatly organised by season. Also illustrated in colour throughout, the book shows more of the flowers and plants in the diagrams with fewer people and insects. Instead, it gives step-by-step instructions for things such as making toilet-roll seed starters, sowing tomatoes and strawberries, as well as information about insects, and water conservation. Because the book is formatted into seasons, it also gives helpful information on how to deal with frost, and a guide to carving pumpkins for Halloween.

The activities are easy to follow, with lots of tips and shortcuts, and making and using tools from recycled rubbish. As well as masses of practical advice, the book also seeks to impart facts, such as explaining why corn on the cob tastes sweet, and that an ear of corn always has an even number of rows. Hands-on and aspirational. You can buy it here.

easy peasy
Another gardening title for children is the informative Easy Peasy Gardening for Kids by Kirsten Bradley. With numbered step-by-step activities, this is a gardening book even for those without much space or without a garden. There’s advice on growing vegetables and herbs indoors, designing a plant pot, making a kokedama to hang inside, or a terrarium. Interspersed between these easy-to-follow activities are informative pages about the different types of soil, pollination, a wildlife spotter’s guide, and companion planting. Some of the activities definitely need a visit to a garden centre, but on the whole these are family-friendly projects. Carefully illustrated, with much white space and clear diagrams with a wide variety of colour, the pages of the book feel as if you have brought a touch of nature inside already. Charming and do-able. A great gardening guide for age 6+ years. You can buy it here.

a walk through nature
A Walk Through Nature written by Libby Walden, illustrated by Clover Robin
is aimed at the very young, and is less an instructional manual and more of an appreciation of nature, guiding the reader gently through the landscape. It implores time to pause and notice flowers blooming, leaves changing colour and the wildlife sounds and activities. There is beautiful poetry, snippet facts, lifecycles and a spotters’ guide. Each page has a fold-out section beneath the cutout illustration, providing further information. Pages are split into coherent subjects: night-time, seasonal change, light, minibeasts, water, skies and more. The illustrations are bold, bright and accessible – looking like a 3D collage upon the printed page. Sumptuous use of colour and texture gives extra depth, so that the reader becomes immersed in the landscape. A thorough embrace of the natural world. You can buy it here.

green giant
For those who like more story with their books, The Green Giant by Katie Cottle serves a purpose both as a story picture book and a tale that encourages the reader to be aware of nature. From its neon orange cover to mass of green pigment creeping throughout the book, this is a delight for the eyes. Bea and her dog go to stay with her grandfather in the country, and although he’s a keen gardener, Bea is content to sit on a garden chair and play on her electronic device. Until her dog chases a cat into the next-door garden, and Bea has to pay attention to her lush green surroundings. She meets a resident green giant in the greenhouse, who tells her about the choking fumes of the city and how he had to move away, and he gives her seeds to plant when she goes back to the city.

Exploring an appreciation of both the aesthetics and benefits of greenery, and how one child can make a difference to the world, this is a timely and relevant picture book with extraordinarily appealing illustrations. There’s a nod to ancient myths of the ‘Green Man,’ and the practice of re-seeding and regeneration. Most readers would be inspired to plant a few of their own seeds after reading and see how much grey they can obliterate. You can buy it here.

i saw a bee
Publishers are taking note of young people’s new-found appreciation for the environment, and I Saw a Bee by Rob Ramsden may be for very small children, but points to an important topic. A young boy finds a bee in a box, and at first is alarmed by its potential menace, reacting with aggression stemming from fear. But gradually, he realises the bee is harmless and they can be friends. The gentle rhythmic text is simple and repetitive, matching the sunny simply-shaped illustrations, which gradually spread across the pages so that by the end, the boy and bee are surrounded by a frame of greenery and flora. Promoting positivity with nature, this is an excellent picture book for the very young. You can buy it here.

little green donkey
Experts agree that much of children’s hesitancy to try new foods or appreciate tastes comes from a lack of awareness of where food comes from and how foods are grown. But for some children, fussiness persists. Little Green Donkey by Anuska Allepuz is a great cautionary tale about a lack of variety in the diet. Little Donkey loves to eat grass and…just grass. But too much grass makes Little Donkey green, and before long Little Donkey endeavours to try other foods in an effort to make himself…less green. With a genderless protagonist and enormously witty illustrations, this is an hilarious story that will have youngsters laughing and eating, although hopefully not grass. Great vocabulary in describing why Little Donkey likes grass so much, (and also carrots), and witty characterisation attributed to the donkey, this is a celebration of the natural world, as well as fruit and vegetables. A reader could even grow their own (vegetables, not donkeys). You can buy it here.

The Dog Runner and Climate Change

the dog runnerBren MacDibble’s latest book for children is set in a dog-eat-dog future, in which food production has failed and energy sources have dried up.

Ella and her big half-brother Emery live in a future dystopian Australia, where a fungus has wiped out grass and led to worldwide famine. They live in the city, but when Ella’s mother fails to return from her job trying to restore the solar power grid, and then their father fails to return home, they gather their dogs, make a dry-land dog-sled and set off across the open countryside to make it to Emery’s grandparents’ farm.

This is a journey novel – an adventure story about two children making it across rough terrain. But MacDibble gently nudges the reader into deeper thought about the way we treat the land, our food, our future, and each other.

In the wake of famine, societal norms have broken down. Cities, and sometimes houses themselves, are enclosed by security guards as much to keep people out as keep people in; there are checkpoints and rogue gangs, empty promises by the government of food distribution. For a society starving to death, behaviour disintegrates. The children learn to trust no one – not even a mother with her pushchair and crying toddler. Gangs roam on solar-powered motorbikes, trigger-happy with guns and eager to find any food – even dogs, and willing to shoot children who get in their way.

In a particularly difficult scene, the children come across a farm that has been razed to the ground, the farmer killed, presumably for the meat they were harboring, for the few fruit trees they had left.

As Ella relates, the news tells them that there is no rice in Asia, no maize in Africa, no corn in America. The book explains the importance of grass for all food production.

With her idiosyncratic prose, MacDibble sets to show how over-production and inattention has wiped out the consideration that must be given to the land we harvest. She gives voice to indigenous cultures in the form of Emery, who is of Afghani/Aboriginal ancestry, and whose grandparents are attempting to re-utilize the old ways of storing grain – working on the land with people who have garnered knowledge about it over time.

In fact, what MacDibble shows is that respect must be given equally to other people and to the land we care-take, and in the absence of both, people die.

The children’s relationship is highly reminiscent of Scout and Jem from To Kill a Mockingbird: the younger feisty sister, and an older protective brother, but in circumstances that dictate it is Ella, the younger sister, who must summon all her courage, step up and take the lead after Emery is hurt.

Above all though, this is a fast-paced adventure novel, about adaptability, the importance of kindness, and a showcase for children’s hope in the future of the planet.

Bren MacDibble

Issues of climate change surface in MacDibble’s novels, firstly in How to Bee and now in The Dog Runner. Here, she gives her top tips for everyday changes we can all make to fight against climate change:

What can I do about climate change?

Walk, cycle or take public transport

Plant trees or volunteer to help reforest an area

Eat what is grown locally

Cut back on red meat, especially save beef for special occasions

Stop using pesticides

Plant wildflowers

Leave some areas wild as a haven for insects

Create a bug hotel

Reduce single use plastic bags, cups, bottles, straws and packaging

Pick up litter to prevent it entering waterways

Turn lights and switches off when you’re not using electrical items

Write to your local government about creating more forested or green spaces

Bren MacDibble was raised on farms all over New Zealand, so is an expert about being a child on the land. After 20 years in Melbourne, MacDibble recently sold up, and now lives and works in a bus travelling around Australia. In 2018, How to Bee – her first novel for younger readers – won three major awards in Australia. The Dog Runner, her second children’s novel, publishes 2nd May. You can buy it here.

Habitats, Biomes, Ecosystems

Following on from Earth Day on Monday, and my review of some Oceans books, I wanted to share a few more books that really shine with their content about Planet Earth.

wildernessWilderness: Earth’s Amazing Habitats by Mia Cassany, Marcos Navarro
This oversize book showcases sixteen amazing habitats around the world from the Niokolo-Koba National Park in Senegal to the Qinling Mountains of China and beyond, and yet this is not scientific discovery so much as an impressive display of the effect achieved by digital artistry. Each page is an abundance of colour and pattern, and settles on a particular species native to that habitat. For example, Bengal tigers in Sundarbans National Park, geckos in the tropical rainforests of Madagascar. In this latter case, the illustration shows their intense brown and pink patterned bodies carefully camouflaged against similarly defined leaves – even the shapes fit together. On some spreads the animals are better hidden than others, leading the reader to seek and celebrate the creature within. Very scant text on each page gives a hint of the wildlife within and the beauty of the area. There is an emphasis on conservation and protection of species, and a world map to locate each habitat.

Each page feels more exotic than the last with an intricate web of colour and pattern creating the flora and fauna – the Tehuacan-Cuicatlan Valley is a riot of colour and densely laid pattern so that the cactus plants feel as if they stretch back and back, giving depth and perspective.

At the end of the book is a find out more section – intelligently showing each double page in miniature with the creatures labelled and identified, and showing how many creatures are depicted (you’ll be amazed at how many you missed first time round). There is factual content here too. An absorbing coffee-table-like book that will keep children enthralled and inspired as much by the artwork and design as by the creatures and information within. It’ll have them clamouring to visit far-flung places. You can buy it here.

incredible ecosystemsThe Incredible Ecosystems of Planet Earth by Rachel Ignotofsky
Ignotofsky’s distinctive style is highly recognisable from the very popular Women in Science book, but here she turns her attention to ecosystems. This is indeed an ‘incredible’ book in the level of detail of information provided, but also in the detail of the illustrations, diagrams, and presentation. From the biome map in the beginning, with its bright coloured key and succinct explanation, to the graphic representation of the food web and flow of energy, in every diagram and illustration and every caption there is a wealth of information.

This is comprehensive and yet incredibly readable. Teaching so much – for example, the importance of the edges of the ecosystem, to microscopic ecosystems, a great deal of information is covered in a short space, for the examples I have mentioned so far are just the beginning. The book then branches out into the different areas of the world, pinpointing particular parts such as the ecosystem of the Alps, a redwood forest, the Mojave Desert and much more.

Aquatics are dealt with next, and then plants, carbon cycle (with a super illustration that not only informs but amuses with its distinctive personality), water cycle (check out the smiling clouds), and of course the impact of humans, positive and negative. In fact, this viewpoint informs most of the book – there is a slant in the text to the wonders of the natural world and humans’ responsibility to appreciate, protect and nurture, lending it a child-centric vision rather than purely scientific. The glossary is illustrated too – there isn’t a page that doesn’t amaze, result in further examination, or stimulate curiosity. Quite a feat. You can buy it here.

paper world planet earthPaper World: Planet Earth by Bomboland and Ruth Symons
Not always won over by clever gatefolds or pop-up designs as they can tend to be gimmicky, this book proves that used correctly, paper engineering can inform, inspire and dazzle.

Looking through Earth to see its different layers in lift-up flaps, or feeling the slits and cut outs that show oceanic crusts and oceanic ridges, or pulling up a flap to reveal an underwater volcano, the clever cutting and shaping of the pages gives literal layers of depth and perspective to the biomes the authors wish to showcase.

The newness of the book meant I had to run my hands along the pages to find the flaps, at the same time giving me a physical awareness of the lines of the book – cut out lines in the illustration that highlight the currents in the sea, the canyons in the mountains, the build up of cloud in a tornado.

This is a shrewd design, teaching geography in a physical and tactile way. The text is clear and precise too. Short sharp sentences explaining layers and processes with ease. Detailing tectonic plates, glaciers, caves, deserts, weather and more. You can buy it here.

the nature girlsThe Nature Girls by Aki
This phenomenally feminist and ultra modern exciting book portrays a group of girls exploring the world’s habitats, all in rhyming verse.

Although a collective group in their yellow outfits and hats, each is different in the colour of their hair, skin, arrangement of body language or expression on their faces.

They swim with dolphins, trek the land, ride camels across sand, explore woodland and traverse snowy tundra. The illustrations are unique and surprising, from the patterned mountains of ice to the exotic jungle and the colourful sea.

For young readers who want to start learning about habitats, this is a bright beautiful picture book, with facts about the different biomes at the back. Perfect early learning.

You can buy it here.

plastic planetPlastic Panic! By Robin Twiddy
Of course to keep our planet as wonderful as the books above describe, we need to work a little harder at looking after it.

This up-to-date non-fiction book attempts to explain the explosion of plastic usage and why it’s dangerous to our planet. Each colourful spread uses a mixture of photos and diagrams to explore why the human race started using so much plastic, and when they realised it was a problem, before ultimately explaining what the reader can do about it.

Starting with a message from the future, it carefully details the history of plastic – how great it seemed to start with – and then explains the level of toxins within plastic and its longevity. There are facts and figures – up to 2018, and a glossary at the back. Three informative double pages at the end talk through recycling, reusing and reducing, with community ideas and scientific solutions. An excellent tool for educating and responding. You can buy it here.

Oceans

ocean secrets of the deepToday is Earth Day. When we look at the Earth from space, it’s mainly blue. The oceans cover more than 70 per cent of our planet. Three sensational books take the reader up close and down into the depths of our fabulous oceans. Firstly, Oceans: Secrets of the Deep by Sabrina Weiss and Giulia De Amicis takes a comprehensive look at this largest habitat on Earth, from amazing creatures to the different zones in the sea: Twilight, Midnight, Hadal, the Abyss! And then it explores different ecosystems within, from kelp forests to coral reefs, before delving into surprising facts and creature information – the sounds of the ocean, journeys and migration, and lastly of course, how we can protect this marvellous environment.

Filled with colourful, stark illustrations and infographics, printed on high-quality paper, the book exudes a sheen.

Author Sabrina Weiss works for the British Ecological Society and the Marine Megafauna Foundation, and below she talks about her work protecting endangered ocean giants such as whale sharks and manta rays.

How much do we really know about the ocean?

By Sabrina Weiss

Mornings in Praia do Tofo usually started with a cup of coffee on our veranda watching the waves lap on the shore. Hoping to escape the hectic city life for a while and donate our professional expertise to a good cause, Giulia De Amicis and I had found ourselves sharing a thatched house in this remote fishing village in southern Mozambique while volunteering for a charity that aims to study and protect threatened sharks and rays.

View from the Marine Megafauna Foundation office, the charity Sabrina and Giulia worked for in Tofo © Sabrina Weiss

We have long been lovers of the ocean and avid scuba divers, and so here we were, sipping our freshly-brewed coffees and recounting our incredible encounters from the day before. As we were hovering midwater during our final dive, I had pointed to three manta rays which were slowly approaching the reef below us. Mantas are often observed around the ‘cleaning stations’ on these bustling coral reefs, where they have their wounds tended by small fish. By doing this the mantas stay clean and healthy and the cleaners get a free meal.

We couldn’t believe our luck. We had been reading and hearing lots about these elusive animals and had worked together on infographics and posters to share our love and fascination with the rest of the world and, yet, only now did we get to see them with our own eyes. These gentle giants, which can reach a ‘finspan’ of seven metres, are very curious and may even swim towards divers to inspect them before vanishing into the big blue.

Giant manta ray feeding near the surface, Tofo © Sabrina Weiss

Even more astonishing is that no one has seen a manta ray give birth in the wild. Ever. It is thought that pregnant females may be seeking out pupping grounds along this beautiful coastline, possibly not far from Tofo. They may be giving birth right under our noses. There is still so much to learn about the secret lives of mantas.

Giulia returned to Milan the following day, but it wasn’t a final goodbye; it was the beginning of a new friendship and an exciting book project that allowed us to tell the fascinating stories of our beautiful and mysterious ocean-dwelling friends.  

With thanks to Sabrina Weiss. Ocean: Secrets of the Deep by Sabrina Weiss, illustrated by Giulia De Amicis is available now at £14.99, published by What on Earth Books, and you can buy it here

beneath the wavesOther budding ocean enthusiasts and environmentalists will be keen to explore Helen Ahpornsiri’s Beneath the Waves: A Journey Through the World’s Oceans, text by Lily Murray. This book is something quite special – each of Ahpornsiri’s illustrations are made using real flora and foliage, which has been preserved using traditional flower pressing methods before she combines the individual pieces into a collage.

The plants are organised by species or colour before being cut out and arranged to form the patterns and colours of plant life and the animals that dwell within. Much use is made of seaweed – fronds of purple laver creating the image of a whale shark, for example.

The book is arranged into four distinct parts: coast, open ocean, tropics and polar waters, and each section explores the flora and fauna within, giving concise information. The illustrations are really quite extraordinary – the seahorse is rendered with a combination of tiny green flowers, light pink ferny leaves, and some darker pinkish brown flora to create an animated, almost fiery, expressive animal.

A simple glossary at the back gives further information. This is a stunning book that holds a gentleness and will provoke a tender wonder at the natural world.

Look closely here.

ocean helene druvertOcean by Helene Druvert, text by Emmanuelle Grundmann also plays with the reader’s expectations, this time with paper-cuts. Using laser cuts and paper folding, the book has fun conveying information in a smart way with careful paper engineering.

The depths of the oceans are shown using wavy paper cutting, the tide spread uses a large side flap to represent the tide coming in or out, the pebbles are flaps uncovering information on the sea floor, information about waves is given using a wave laser cut to look reminiscent of the famous illustration by Hokusai, the coral reef is stunningly colourful, and the food chain hidden beneath a super predator.

This is a really tactile large-format reference book, with good basic information from the water cycle to the polar regions. Explore the depths here

Look out later this week for my Earth Day Earth books!

 

 

Cloud Boy by Marcia Williams

cloud boyWhat makes a children’s book good? In Edwardian times, critics might have been concerned with the imparting of morality within the text. These moral instructions can still be valid – does a book show the reader how to be socially conscious, perhaps about discrimination, difference or the environment? Or perhaps it’s about psychological improvement – teaching a child about empathy, imagination, making them happy? Helping that child to identify with someone different, or to see themselves mirrored within the story, to validate their identity and their difficulties, to reinforce the self.

But above all, it’s about believable character and good story.

Experienced author Marcia Williams imparts knowledge – this time about some little-known history – in Cloud Boy, and provokes psychological conscientiousness by showing children how to overcome deep adversity, but she has also created a thoroughly authentic main character within an accessible, gripping text.

The book is written in a child’s diary format, which gives the text an absolute simplicity and makes it easy to read. Angie keeps a diary about her life and her friendship with Harry, the boy who lives next door. Together, their fathers have built them a treehouse, which straddles the two children’s gardens, and serves a purpose for them both – a place for Angie to draw and write, and a place for Harry to watch the clouds – he’s an expert in identifying the different formations.

When Angie’s grandmother comes to stay, she shares with the children the letters she wrote as a prisoner of war during Japan’s occupation of Singapore. Drawing on a survivor’s tales of life in the Changi Prison during the Second World War, Williams blends the two stories – the modern children and the tragedy that strikes them, and the history of the Guides in the Changi Prison, and how they sewed quilts to pass the time and create a symbol of hope and endurance.

There is a poignant naivety to Angie’s writing, as she struggles to comprehend how sick Harry is becoming, whilst the reader is all too aware. The stabilising force of her grandmother, who has endured hardships unimaginable to our modern sensibility, enables Angie and Harry to find coping mechanisms to face their own adversity. Like other modern children’s books, the growing awareness of inter-generational relationships and their intense value is well documented here, as grandmothers in literature become more than silver-hair-bunned figures knitting in rocking chairs.

The children’s eagerness to hear their grandmother’s history speaks to the need within us all for a knowledge of our ancestry and identity, but also provides a framework for learning about resilience. All the while, the treehouse represents a place of calm and safety, of independence, as Angie has to learn to deal with her emotions. A treehouse also provides the ability to see things from a different perspective – gazing at the clouds or perhaps on the people below. The careful positioning of it in this novel gives the children a physical structure in which to cement their friendship.

But readers should beware – at times the cruel adversity written about seems much more advanced and harsher than the level implied by the simplicity of the vocabulary and ease of the text. The brevity may suit reluctant readers but there is immense depth in the emotion portrayed – and this is one of Williams’ strengths – she easily portrays Angie’s difficulty in dealing with her strong emotions, and shows incredible pathos in her depiction of Harry’s mother. This is not an easy read in terms of subject matter, but it is worth acknowledging that not all children’s books can be filled with happy endings – not everything does end happily. However, there are glimpses of hope and optimism, and the possibility of how life continues despite the adversity faced.

Williams has woven her own gem here, inspired by an exhibition at the V&A Museum in London, and a glimpse of a Changi quilt – a single object of love and endurance. It’s a fascinating piece of social history, and well worth exploring. You can buy a copy here.