nature

Explorers and Pioneers

From the history of exploration to the extremes of our planet, from game-changing theories to contemporary outdoor adventures, these four books take the reader on journeys of discovery and endeavour.

darwins voyage of discovery
Darwin’s Voyage of Discovery by Jake Williams
Pure, simple illustrations from upcoming illustrator Jake Williams make this new book about Darwin rather distinctive. Publishing to celebrate 160 years since Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, it follows Darwin’s journey on the The Beagle to Cape Verde, the Galapagos, Australia and more, paying careful attention to the discoveries Darwin made. Split into sections of the journey, with the beginning profiling Darwin’s early life and then the ship and preparations for the voyage, the rest plots the geography with basic maps and then wildlife of the region that Darwin noted.

The book goes into detail on the creatures, noting their features, but also the questions that Darwin asked about them, sparking ideas of evolution and ancestry. As the book highlights these, today’s reader will also begin to think – about exploration and discovery, but also about making connections and learning from nature – how analysis of behaviours and patterns can provoke theory. The space on the pages allows for this freedom of thought. There are no contents, no glossary…this is a book as a voyage – a linear discovery. You can buy it here.

dk explorers
DK Explorers, illustrated by Jessamy Hawke, written by Nellie Huang
This is a beautifully designed primer to exploration, with an introduction from explorer Barbara Hillary. Taking in the breadth of what exploration means – from adventuring to the furthest reaches of geography, whether it be deep sea or outer space – to understanding the commitment, determination and courage that being an explorer means, this book will open up the reader’s eyes to what has been achieved and at what cost.

Divided into sections: sea and ice, land, air and space, the book focuses on personalities – taking a double page for each explorer. There is a marvellous mix of graphics, of course maps, but also photographs of artefacts from American William Clark’s compass,  to photographs of British archaeologist Gertrude Bell on exploration, as well as full page illustrations that bring the scenes to life. There are first person accounts and quotes, as well as third person explanations and captions. Engaging and informative, this is a lovely nonfiction book, with careful nods to inclusivity, and a reflection on the darker side of exploration, all appropriate for the age group (9+yrs). You can buy it here.

adventures on earth
Adventures on Earth by Simon Tyler
This too divides the world into geographical regions, including polar, mountainous, volcanic, oceanic and more, looking at the extremes of our Earth, and noting their features, their wildlife, and the people who have discovered and explored them. With a nod to conservation issues too, this is a compelling looking book, with large shapes and blocks of colour denoting entire regions – deserts in terracotta and brown, caves in deep black, and oceans, in a nice touch, with a deep sunset beyond.

At times, the text is hard to read against its dark background, at other times stark against the polar regions, but always fascinating and packed with information. Maps and a glossary give clear guidance. Tyler’s background as a graphic designer shines through – some features look poster-like in their blockiness, and the design feels bold and sophisticated. Like some of the explorations it features, such as El Capitan and Dos Ojos, this is certainly attention-grabbing. You can buy it here.

wild girl
Wild Girl: How to have Incredible Outdoor Adventures by Helen Skelton, illustrated by Liz Kay
For those inspired by books such as those above, this may be a child’s entry point into their own exploration. Skelton has been and done many things and this book showcases her various explorations, from cycling to the South Pole to kayaking the length of the Amazon. It tracks the adventure, describes the preparation, kit and training, as well as the specific details such as going to the toilet and staying hydrated, as well as highly personal details such as cravings for apples and drying hair. Then each section attempts to give hints as to how a child can have their own adventures and explorations closer to home.

In the ‘sand’ adventure section, it suggests beach running, campfires and even sand boarding. For ‘rivers’, Skelton encourages ghyll scrambling, rafting, kite-surfing and more. These are not adventures for the garden, but certainly high-level activities that require some ‘warnings’, which are in place in the book. I particularly liked the idea of having a wild adventure in a city, making use of seeing things from a different perspective, such as going low, or going high. This is a highly personal recollection of voyages taken, but also an aspirational one for children wanting to be like Helen Skelton. The design is busy, but nicely arranged to read part-diary, part information manual, with plenty of colour, illustrations and photographs to draw the eye. An admirable non-fiction on the realities of modern exploration. You can buy it here.

With thanks to Pavilion, DK, and Walker publishers for the review copies.

Friendship Picture Books

How has the first half term of school been? Has your child made lots of new friends? It’s a perpetual anxiety for a parent – whether their child has made friends at school, and the tricky dynamics of friendship continue long into adulthood. From sharing toys in reception, to peer pressure in the teen years, to sociability as adults, our ability to befriend others can be an ongoing worry:
“Why haven’t they texted me back?”

A plethora of recent picture books show us some of the pitfalls of making friends, some of the benefits of friendship, and the fun to be had in another’s company.

misadventures of frederickThe Misadventures of Frederick by Ben Manley and Emma Chichester Clark
There is so much to love about this book. Emma Chichester Clark has long been a favourite illustrator of mine, ever since Blue Kangaroo got lost on the bus, and this new book shows off Clark’s wonderful depth of expression in her characters, her warming and familiar use of colour, and the positivity that flows through scenes of childhood joy. Add to this a wonderful yet somewhat subversive story about a quirky boy called Frederick who lies in a mansion but is very bored. Emily invites him (in a series of letters) to play outside with her, but he is reticent – what if he gets hurt? Emily’s perseverance pays off, and before long the thrills of nature have made themselves abundantly apparent.

There’s a skill in a good picture book, and this one excels in every way. The growing sense of adventure and wonder of nature creeps slowly into the mansion, poking Frederick with tendrils that seek to disturb and tempt him. Emily lives the idyll of childhood – leaping freely into water (shown mid-air), riding a bike, climbing a tree.

Frederick lives surrounded by stuff, yet in much more muted colours, and all the time his wallpaper, his TV shows, his toys, remind him of what might lie outdoors. The possible bond between the children is the stream of letters (shown in text and illustration) that flow between the two like a rushing stream. There’s even a funny ending. You can buy it here.

the pirate tree
The Pirate Tree by Brigita Orel and Jennie Poh
This slightly more lyrical text reminded me of On Sudden Hill with its imaginative children who turn a simple tree into a pirate ship. At first rejected because he is new to the area, Agu is quickly permitted onto the boat when Sam realises that Agu has useful knowledge, borne from his experience of leaving Nigeria. By the end, the girl and boy have sailed the seas, discovered a deserted island, reefed the mainsail, sparred with rival pirates, and made friends.

A large amount of white space on each page allows the reader to absorb the poetical prose and textured neat illustrations, as well as fill the gaps with their own musings and imagination. Beautiful, with a stunning vocabulary. You can buy it here.

my friends

My Friends by Max Low
With a title as blatant as that, it’s clear what this book is about, but it mainly appealed to me because the illustrations reminded me of Heathcliff and Henry’s Cat (1980’s cartoons). Each page introduces a new character and their characteristics or hobbies, all with a massive dollop of humour. Pepper cooks yummy food, Olga listens to music. The trick is that on each page, the first person narrator describes how he gets involved with this new friend through this shared hobby. There’s even an imaginary friend, and also the virtues of having some time to oneself. Simple, bright and illuminating the benefit of having lots of friends who like different things. You can buy it here.

golden acorn
The Golden Acorn by Katy Hudson
A more pointed message in this longer animal story about teamwork; the book sits firmly in the ‘autumn’ canon of children’s books. The third in the series about Squirrel, Rabbit, Beaver and Tortoise, following Too Many Carrots and A Loud Winter’s Nap, this book highlights Squirrel’s desire to win The Golden Nut Hunt for the ninth time. But this year, the tournament has been turned into a team event, and so she reluctantly drags in her friends – they just don’t have the skillset to win. Of course, in the end she puts her friends before trophies. Great illustrative vignettes showing the myriad of different obstacles in the race make this a winning title – the characters’ expressions match the energy of the race.

flock
Flock by Gemma Koomen
Another celebration of nature in this whimsical picture book from a new author. Sylvia is a Tree Keeper, one of a tiny community of little people who live in trees (their heads are the size of hazelnuts). They ‘nurture and mend, gather and tend.’ Sylvia is a loner, but a chance encounter with a baby bird encourages her to rejoin her flock and find comfort in friendship. The book celebrates community spirit, and will be loved by youngsters who like their picture books full of tiny people from old-fashioned magical lands – the Tree Keepers are pictured playing musical instruments, dancing around the maypole, and celebrating with wholesome homemade food. The main illustrative treat comes not from the Tree Keepers though, but from the flock of birds, the ‘thousands of wings beating as one’. A good guide to nature as well as to neighbourliness. You can buy it here.

humperdink
Humperdink Our Elephant Friend by Sean Taylor, illustrated by Clare Alexander
The illustrations in this young picture book are less intricate, slightly vaguer and more haphazard, which lends well to the playgroup setting. With black outlines and careful choice of colour, the playgroup feels authentic and familiar – a yellow rug on the floor, coloured building blocks, and much role play; the children hail from a variety of different backgrounds. Weirdly enough, the new kid isn’t a kid at all, but an elephant. And he fits in as well as a bull in a china shop, despite the children’s best efforts. In the end of course, they discover how he can contribute to the group.

Like some of the other picture books here, the book has a gentle nod towards the benefits of nature – the children venturing into the jungle with the elephant and finding a plethora of fun activities there. It’s a magical title, adding huge excitement to normal tales of playgroup friendship, and of course giving the message that inclusivity is key. There’s a wonderful exuberance to the illustrations here – children love slides! You can buy it here.

we are together

We Are Together by Britta Teckentrup
Teckentrup has a distinctive style all of her own, and it is easy to spot her books in the library. Inside, the books all sing with a similar rhythm, a lovely rhyming poetry. And many tend to have cutouts within, giving an extra physical dimension to the book. We Are Together has all of these, and here they work particularly well. The message is unity and teamwork – the power of a group, particularly a diverse group who are supportive of each other. With references to needing support in unhappy or difficult times, with an understanding that we are small in comparison to the big world, and an absolute appreciation of nature all the way through, this is a neatly told message. The cutouts provide endless amusement and bring a smile – each page reveals the group to be larger and larger – lots of small people eventually making a circle. It reminded me of the Coca Cola advert of old, teaching the world to sing. You can buy it here.

With thanks to Two Hoots, Lantana Press, Otter-Barry Books, Curious Fox, Frances Lincoln, Words&Pictures and Little Tiger Press for the review copies.

The Wonders of Nature by Ben Hoare, illustrated by Angela Rizza and Daniel Long

wonders of natureThis summer I came across the sacred Datura wildflower. A poisonous perennial, it has hallucinogenic properties, the Zion park ranger told me. What’s more, it blooms at night, starting early evening and typically closing around noon, and has features that are iridescent in UV light, but hidden from human sight.

Wildlife journalist, Ben Hoare, in his latest children’s book for Dorling Kindersley, doesn’t cover hallucinogens thankfully, but does open the readers’ eyes to a host of wonders, in sections of the book neatly separated into  rocks and minerals, microorganisms, plant life and animal life.

Carefully curated to sample the spread of wonders in the natural world, the rocks and minerals section highlights key examples from hard to soft; the animal section picks a variety from simple organisms to complex animals. At first, the choice of minerals and species may seem random, but closer inspection shows Hoare attempting to showcase vastly different features and strengths across the natural world.

Aimed at a young child, age 7+, Hoare’s text reads simply but is imbued with enthusiasm and creativity. Each entry has two descriptive paragraphs and although they do give the essential facts on the item – Hoare detailing that the Iris grows from a bulb – he makes smart analogies too: comparing the lines or dots on petals to landing lights on an airport runway, giving insects a pathway into the nectar. He also branches out into myth and story – in Ancient Greece, Iris was the goddess of rainbows.

This flair for interest and creativity extends to each entry, even on the snail. A pull-out quote on this page points to the fact that a snail has ‘not one, but several tiny brains’, bringing out the author’s sense of humour. On living stones, which thrive in a desert habitat, Hoare points out that desert creatures such as tortoises often miss this source of food, as the plants are only easy to spot after rain falls.

A mix of photograph and illustration, the design of the book serves the purpose of ‘wonder’ well. In the plant section, there is often up-close photography of a flower or leaf, and an illustration of the entry at a distance, to give the reader the impression of the shape of the entire tree or plant. Zoomed in, some plant leaves can look like artworks themselves; Traveller’s tree resembling a psychedelic poster, although there are no hallucinogens here.

When the design pushes through to meet the text, the reader knows they are onto a winner. Nowhere in the book is this more blatant that the spread on the Ghost plant. This double page entry is faded to a ghostly grey, both in photograph and illustration, with a droopy look, definitely looking less than lively. But the text zings with life – this fascinating plant is almost transparent, and Hoare explains how it doesn’t need photosynthesis (explained and phonetically spelled out), using a mix of exclamation and questions to get his point across. The pulled-out fact tells the reader not to pick the plant because it turns black.

At first glance, this may seem like a book with little text on each full page picture. But reading it not only gives the reader knowledge, it inspires true wonder at the natural world.

For me, books are exquisite items in themselves. But as if to emphasises the point of the wonder of the natural world, the production of this book has been handled with a sense of elegance too – gold edges to the pages, a tough hardback with a gold foiled cover. A fantastic stand-alone title, but also a great companion to its sister title An Anthology of Intriguing Animals. You can buy The Wonders of Nature by Ben Hoare, published by DK here.

With thanks to DK for the review copy. The book is available at £20.00

Back to School September 2019

language of the universeSurprises abound in nonfiction, and my first subject of the day is Maths, but not as you know it. The Language of the Universe by Colin Stuart and Ximo Abadia is subtitled ‘a visual exploration of maths’, and I wish my maths had been this visual at school.

Bursting with colour, from the stunning peacock and gold foil on the cover, the book explores maths in four sections – the contents page colour-panelled for visual ease – maths in the natural world; physics, chemistry and engineering; space; and technology.

Chapters and topics include ‘Finding Fibonacci’ with its huge whirly flowers; to understanding prime numbers through cicadas; to ‘Getting to Grips with Geometry’ with the white-spotted pufferfish, and the book cleverly links everyday school maths to real world visuals, thus helping the brain to remember the concepts.

Levers, Pythagoras, floating, circuits, and more are covered in the Physics section, but things get really interesting in the final section on Technology, where cryptography and data are extrapolated so that the reader can draw a line from maths in the classroom to technology in today’s world. Maths is in everything and everywhere. This is for both the keen inquisitor, and the reluctant maths scholar – it definitely shows you maths in a whole new light, and colour! You can buy it here. For 8+

so you want to be a viking so you want to be a roman soldier?
I always loved History, and these handy guides will show the reader how to navigate their way into the past through a non-fiction narrative. So You Want to Be a Roman Soldier? By Philip Matyszak, And So You Want to Be a Viking? By John Haywood, are repackaged texts from prior books but now updated in a new format with wacky illustrations by cartoonist Takayo Akiyama. Of course any books like this are bound to be compared to Horrible Histories, and there is an element of that humour, but this is written as a guide rather than a history.

There are interactive quizzes, tips, destination suggestions, shopping lists for kits, and so forth, all zanily illustrated in two-tone colours. ‘Climbing the Ranks’ section in the Roman soldier book, and being the ‘Top Boss’ are particularly good pages. There is lots of modern slang mixed in with Roman jargon, and I felt more Caesar-like as the book progressed. Books include maps and glossaries. You can buy them here. For 7+ years.

why we became humans
Stepping back in time further, and reading up on Natural History, you might want to look at When We Became Humans by Michael Bright, illustrated by Hannah Bailey. This information-heavy book moves from apes through first tools, shelters, and migration to hunting, trading and cities, covering a variety of monumental firsts, including cave paintings, buildings, right through to the printing press and population boom – of huge topical discussion at the moment.

The illustrations are intelligently rendered, to sit nicely alongside the text, which doesn’t plod with data, but rather stimulates discovery and thought. There is great analysis in here, the text explaining how writing created history, among other wise words. With maps and charts, anatomy, geography and more, this is a fascinating exploration of human evolution for 8+ years. You can buy it here.

animals at night
Are you studying rainforests or habitats in Geography? Animals at Night by Katy Flint, illustrated by Cornelia Li is a follow-up to Glow-in-the-dark Voyage Through Space, but this time comes a bit closer to home. With spreads on Woodland, Rainforest, the City, Desert, and more, it thoroughly covers the different biomes at night. Colourful paragraphs caption the exquisite landscape illustrations, which themselves are created with digital technology using hand-painted textures. The porcupine’s prickles feel 3D, the rattlesnake stretches back into the desert behind it. A tear-out poster glows in the dark illuminating creatures of the deep sea. Awe-inspiring and aesthetically attractive, you’ll learn something too. You can buy it here. Age 6+.

why do we wear clothes?
Creative arts/textile management more your thing? This book sadly arrived after my blog on fashion books, but is a worthy addition to this ‘back to school’ list, particularly for those primary schools focusing on the ‘All Dressed Up’ topic from the International Primary Curriculum.

Why Do We Wear Clothes? By Helen Hancocks, in association with the V&A Museum is a treasure trove of colourful fashions with a bit of philosophy tacked on top. This isn’t a comprehensive tome on fashion, but rather a primary-school-age book of wacky facts, and an opportunity to glimpse different cultures and fashions.

Crinoline cages, whites at Wimbledon, the bicorne, icons of fashion, umbrellas and colours – it’s all within and summed up in a sentence or two. A good straightforward glossary and guide to fashion ‘people’ at the back rounds off a fascinating book. Some quirks abound – the text asks questions of the reader, and there’s a tiny print credits section, exploring items in the V&A that inspired the text.

Overall, this is a bright and vivacious book with a fun mishmash of information. For age 6+. You can buy it here.

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.