newly independent readers

Yuval Zommer sketches

A few weeks ago I featured the new book by Yuval Zommer, The Big Book of the Blue. Yuval’s illustrations are distinctive among today’s crop of children’s illustrators – playful and cartoonish, populating his exquisitely edited Big Book nonfiction series with a sense of fun and also knowledge. Here, Yuval gives an insight into his drawing process:

I loved working on The Big Book Of The Blue and now that the book is out I often get asked “what was your favourite animal to draw and why?” But I have so many favourites…

I’ll start by telling you that the animals I found most challenging to draw were the Dolphins, they already have a naturally friendly smiley expression and I really didn’t want them to look too cute. I first thought the Sharks would be the most challenging but when I got to draw them they became rather mischievously endearing. Many readers seem to really like the Whales in the book, as do I, but my favourite animals to draw were actually the smallest creatures in the book.

Here are a couple of examples of what I call ‘moods’ (rather than sketches) that I would do as preparation for the book:

Yuval Zommer

I loved drawing these Coral Reef Fish. Here Mother Nature really excelled herself when it comes to flair: these tiny fish who flit brightly among the corals have the most delicate features, almost transparent fins and tails, some gorgeous abstract patterns and splashes of vibrant colours. In my ‘mood boards’ I first try to capture the essence of the animals, how they move together as a fish shoal, what’s the overall colour palette, the corresponding flora etc. Even in a group in which every fish looks almost identical, if you look closely you’ll see there are subtle differences so that each of my fish is still an individual 🙂

Yuval Zommer

Not everyone likes the Crustaceans group, otherwise known as Shellfish, but to me they were some of the most interesting creatures to draw. Crabs, lobsters, shrimp and krill all belong in this ocean family; each has a hard skeleton on the outside of the body. I love how they make such intricate ‘alien like’ shapes with their claws and multi limbs. Also, if you look closely at each shellfish there are so many beautifully blended tones of orange or pink or coral. One of my favourite pages in the book turned out to be the Krill. It’s set at night time and I managed to show a swarm of tiny krill all shimmering under the surface of the sea!

With many thanks to Yuval. Take a look at the book yourself here, and see more of Yuval’s fantastic drawings. 

 

Little Guide to Great Lives: Marie Curie by Isabel Thomas, illustrations by Anke Weckmann

marie curie
There’s been a glut of biographies of women recently, not only to fill the gap in the market, but also to celebrate the centenary of the first women getting the vote in the UK. But this new series, Little Guides to Great Lives, also features men, and isn’t skewed towards the women’s suffrage movement. Rather than a bound anthology of biographies, each of these biographies is a small standalone book, although they are exquisitely designed and so do look good together on the shelf.little guides to great lives

Other than their size and design, what makes these biographies stand out is the ease with which the stories are told, the fascinating details included, and the chatty tone of the prose. Including quotations from the famous people themselves, and questions about why their lives matter and what made them who they were, these are intriguing little books.

The book about Marie Curie starts with her childhood – including references to her siblings, her friendships and even her likes and dislikes. Cartoonish illustrations complete with speech bubbles give pause for thought, empathy and understanding; a child reader might quickly relate to a wild child who loved lemonade and ice cream.

With the world outside encroaching on her life, and a lack of money and lack of opportunity as a girl, boredom and frustration eventually turn to studiousness and adventure when Marie makes her way to France and the Sorbonne. Marie’s own scientific studies take off, and here the book really excels: explaining very clearly to the reader the science she was testing, the notes she made, the importance and relevance of her discoveries and the ongoing impact she has on science and our world.

Each book in the series deals with their subject in this way – starting with childhood but not just the dry facts. The books drill down into the person’s emotional stability, the benefits they experienced or the deprivations they suffered. Successes and failures are highlighted, as well as the impact of the outer world and when they had to overcome something difficult or sad and persevere. With only 64 pages in which to accomplish the extraordinary tale of Marie Curie, Thomas keeps the prose succinct and neat, but with small dashes of personality so that it feels lively and relevant.

The design is part of the appeal too. The hardback textured cover shows articles that made a difference in the subjects’ lives – Marie Curie’s is full of chemical symbols, test-tubes and writing implements, whereas Frida Kahlo has monkeys, skulls, watermelon and the Mexican flag. The colour theme from the cover is then extended throughout the book – each is highly illustrated in colour.

The books also contain glossaries, indexes and timelines for quick glances, and so far the personalities chosen bear out an equality in gender and global significance. (The sixth title, publishing in the autumn, is Charles Darwin). Frida Kahlo publishes to coincide with the V&A’s upcoming exhibition (London), and Amelia Earhart and Leonardo Da Vinci titles tie in well with the Year of Engineering. It’s been 100 years since the birth of Nelson Mandela, so it’s fitting to have that title too.

These are wonderful treasures for any child’s bookcase, and an absolute pleasure to read, share and own. I’d recommend 7+ years – but they are of equally good quality and substance for those just starting secondary school who need to do topic work. You can buy Little Guides to Great Lives: Marie Curie here. And the others here.

she persisted

While we’re dealing with biographies, and seeing as I’ve cheated on having just ‘one book of the week’, you might also extend your wishlist to include She Persisted Around the World by Chelsea Clinton, illustrated by Alexandra Boiger. This book profiles 13 women who changed history, particularly those who were told to quiet down and had to strongly persist. Including Marie Curie, but also Sor Juana, Leymah Gbowee, Wangari Maathai, this is an unusual collection and profiles each woman in just a couple of sentences. It’s a flavour, an inspiration perhaps. You can buy it here.

The Boy Who Grew Dragons by Andy Shepherd, illustrated by Sara Ogilvie

boy who grew dragonsSo, this is not the first book about a young boy with a dragon pet. I bet you can think of a few yourself. Which begs the question, what makes this book standout from the crowd, what makes it so unique, good and worthy of the book of the week spot?

Tomas helps his grandfather with his unwieldy garden, and one day stumbles upon a strange tree growing the most peculiar looking fruit. He takes one of the fruits home, and later that evening is immensely surprised to discover a dragon hatching from it. What follows is the trials and tribulations experienced when hatching your own baby dragon.

But for me, Shepherd’s unique selling point is not her plot, although it moves with pace, but her ability to mix humour and fun with an intense pathos and understanding of human emotion. It is Tomas’ interaction with the other human characters that really pulls on the reader’s emotions – although there is plenty of fun to be had with the dragon too.

Tomas has a little sister Lolli, who although too young to talk, communicates and spars with Tomas brilliantly in her capacity as co-conspirator in hiding the dragon. Their alliance also demonstrates the uniqueness of sibling relationships – the bond that stretches from affectionate love and sharing of secrets and a helpful camaraderie at one end, to being able to blame the other for something they didn’t do at the other extreme.

The sympathetic grandparent relationship within the story also rings true, and draws the most pathos. Tomas loves spending time with his grandfather, but is torn with guilt between how much time he spends with him versus time with his friends, and Tom also shows an acute awareness, in a wondrous childlike fashion, of how delicate the relationship is as his grandfather gets older and more fragile. The feeling of not wanting to disappoint and yet also wanting to live his own best life compete beautifully within the plot structure.

This gamut of human emotion also stretches to Tomas’ new pet dragon. Feelings of responsibility compete with curiosity and awe, the knowledge of having something different and special and being the envy of one’s peers, and yet knowing that the dragon is precious and special and not merely for showing off – in fact it’s a live being with feelings of its own.

There are some lovely touches here – the timidity of the dragon at first, the portrayal of its physicality as it learns to trust Tomas, and Tomas’ inventive efforts to control the poos and treat his dragon correctly.

But none of this overshadows the sheer fun and vivacity of the novel. Shepherd brings out every flourish of her imagination in Tomas’s discovery – from the tree itself with glowing fruit, to the different types of dragons, their combustible poos, and how difficult dragons are to capture and hide.

Sara Ogilvie’s illustrations here do what they did for the characters in Phil Earle’s Storey Street series, and she brings to life the tree, the dragons and characters with limitless expression. These are warm, animated, engaging illustrations that almost seem to move across the page.

This is a sumptuous start to a new series, bursting with energy and humour, yet tinged with the darker side of life too. There’s a grumpy neighbour, aware but preoccupied parents, an eclectic group of friends, a strange gardening guide, nomenclature of dragon pets – so many facets all covered and explored. A perfect example of domesticity interrupted with a touch of magic. Dragon fruit will never look the same again! Happily for 7+ years; you can buy it here.

Exploring the Hidden World of the Young Carer

Ruby's StarMister P is the most delightful creation – a cuddly, sympathetic polar bear, whom the publishers describe as a mashup of Mary Poppins and Scooby-Doo. The bear enters the lives of those who need him most, trying to change things for the better. Readers first met Mister P when he visited Arthur, who needed some help to feel less jealous of the attention afforded his younger sibling. In this latest book, Mister P visits Ruby, a ten-year-old girl with much on her hands. She is a young carer. Ruby looks after both her mum and her baby brother Leo, as well as trying to do things other ten year olds do, such as go to school. The last thing she feels she needs is a ridiculous giant polar bear trailing after her. But as before, it turns out that Mister P can open doors for Ruby and provide her with new opportunities, different insights, friends, and finally a change in situation and behaviour – all for the better.

What’s most interesting is that there are many children’s books out there that introduce an imaginary friend, or a cuddly creature to help and advise and make the child’s life better, but mainly they are unseen by the surrounding characters, particularly the adults. In this case, the polar bear is most definitely seen – in fact rather than be viewed as something surprising, dangerous or challenging to the little girl he’s with, he’s most often seen as an irritation, something to be angry about, or amused by. Farrer’s use of the ‘friend’ device is different then. Perhaps it contains a small undercurrent of anger – because the adults very clearly see the polar bear and find that it is in their way, but they are blind to Ruby’s difficulties and struggles. They are not able to be empathetic or even sympathetic. The one adult who does understand immediately dives in to Ruby’s life to help her and is the shining example in the novel, followed by Ruby’s Headteacher, who finally seems to take notice of Ruby – but only after seeing the polar bear. 

Farrer writes with care and compassion in her portrayal of a struggling youngster with a depressed mother, and her touches of humour make this an easy and encouraging read for youngsters – the big text helps too. Daniel Rieley’s warm illustrations, although in black and white, also convey a world of colour and imagination and laughter. Here, Maria Farrer explores why writing about young carers was so touching and is so necessary:

No-one knows exactly how many young carers there are. Their role is often hidden because it is something they feel reluctant, unable or scared to talk about. Some have never known anything different and accept their responsibilities as a normal part of everyday life.

Estimates suggest that there are around 700,000 young carers in the UK, but the real figure is likely to be higher. A young carer is someone under the age of 18 who looks after, or helps to look after, a relative with physical or mental health problems. Sickness, disability, depression and alcohol or drug addiction are just some of the responsibilities that young carers take on in an attempt to support someone they love. Caring involves providing physical and emotional support and often taking on domestic duties such as cleaning, shopping and cooking as well as managing finances. Many young carers find caring a positive and rewarding experience and feel that they manage well. However, when the responsibilities mount up, there can be knock-on effects into other aspects of life—school, friends, academic attainment, confidence and self-esteem. Many find it hard to get out and relax. If a parent or sibling is unwell, there isn’t much ‘down-time’ as the worry and concern stays with you wherever you are—often more so when you are away from the home.

Ruby’s Star explores the challenges of being a young carer. Ruby was 9 when her Dad left and she now looks after her Mum who has mental health issues and her baby brother, Leo. Like many young carers, she rarely complains and is justifiably proud of the way she manages. She is tough and determined and capable—most of the time. But when things get really rough she has no-one to turn to and feels isolated and afraid. Her Mum has told her that she mustn’t talk to anyone about the situation at home in case the family gets split up—and there is no way that Ruby is ever going to let that happen. So she battles on alone, often exhausted and stressed, often in trouble at school and occasionally letting her frustrations spill over in the form of aggression and anger. Ruby doesn’t resent her responsibilities, but there are times when she just wants to be a care-free child and enjoy the things that other children enjoy—like skateboarding.

So when a large polar bear arrives and moves in to Ruby’s already crowded and hot flat on the 15th floor, it is pretty much the last straw. Another mouth to feed, another thing to worry about. And it is hard to go unnoticed when you have a polar bear in tow; a polar bear who doesn’t always do as he is told. It is through the arrival and antics of Mister P that Ruby accidentally gets to meet the wonderful Mrs Moresby on the floor below and life begins to change.

Researching for Ruby’s Star made for some pretty sombre reading. Apart from the arrival of a large polar bear, the problems faced by Ruby are similar to those faced by many young carers. When you are exhausted, it is hard to keep up with school work and sometimes hard to even stay awake at your desk. You may be absent from school a lot or too consumed by worry to concentrate on lessons. You may feel misunderstood, overwhelmed, lose friends, experience bullying. The fear of your home situation somehow being ‘discovered’ is very real and makes you increasingly isolated and lonely. The need for a support network or a trusted individual is paramount.

We need to build a greater awareness of young carers and to make sure that they know that it is safe to discuss and share their experiences without the (usually unwarranted) fear of heavy-handed intervention. Sharing brings understanding and empathy and many schools and authorities are aware of the young carers in their midst and help to support them.

We should also do more to celebrate young carers—the job they do and the responsibilities they take on from an early age are phenomenal and it would be great to let them know that they are valued, not just by those for whom they are caring, but by all of us (polar bears included!).

Further information and help can be found at:-

https://carers.org/about-us/about-young-carers

www.actionforchildren.org.uk

www.nhs.uk/conditions/social-care-and-support/young-carers-rights/

With thanks to Maria Farrer for her insightful guest post. You can buy Me and Mister P: Ruby’s Star here. And join me on twitter @minervamoan to win a copy of both Mister P books. 

Train No. 4: Ister (Bucharest to Istanbul)

secret of the night trainConfused by the title? Don’t worry, I haven’t started trainspotting instead of reading. Today, I’m delighted to welcome Sylvia Bishop onto the site. Her latest book, The Secret of the Night Train, is my current book of the week, and features an intrepid young girl crossing Europe by train without her family. As if this wasn’t adventurous enough, she also uses the journey to find out if one of her fellow passengers is a jewel thief. The book is wonderfully written, intensely gripping, and one of my top books this year. To celebrate its publication, Sylvia has written a different blog each day to mirror her book’s structure – the train journey from Paris to Istanbul. Here, on MinervaReads, she celebrates the last part of the journey – from Bucharest to Istanbul. And I have two copies of the book to give away – see details at the bottom:

In my new book, The Secret of the Night Train, Max Morel takes a journey from Paris to Istanbul on four trains. She is accompanied by a nun called Sister Marguerite, and must solve the mystery of a smuggled diamond. I was lucky enough to do this journey myself, and wrote a lot of the book on board. In this series of blog posts, I talk about my real journey, and how it informed the book.

I had a very short window of time to make this journey, and to my grumpy and continued regret, the Ister wasn’t running. There were major reconstruction works at Sirkeci station. Woe is me! How shall this poor author write about a train she hasn’t travelled on?

I still wish I could have gone, but in the end it prompted quite a useful decision. I tried to conjure up this fourth train using the pictures on Google, but it felt abstract and boring, and I knew I had to do something else. To be honest, I am not sure if seeing the real train would have helped. I realised, as I crossed out a description-of-train passage for the nine millionth time, that maybe I had just described too many trains. Maybe we were train-ed out. It was time for a new setting.

Which was all very well, but short of shoving Max off and making her walk, I had no choice. She had to travel on a train.

I was discussing this dilemma with my endlessly-helpful housemates, when one casually suggested “Maybe you need to find a different way for her to travel by train. Like, she could do the classic roof-of-a-train scene.”

My housemates, for the record, are first class genius muses of the highest order.

So the next day found me glued to YouTube videos about thrill-seekers who climb on the outside of trains, which are a great thing to watch if you happen to enjoy feeling sick to your stomach or yelling “No, you fool, what are you doing, oh my God” at strangers on your computer who are genuinely extremely likely to die. As a result, the Ister section of Night Train is not much of a travel guide. It is more of a how-not-to-travel-guide. Poor Max. I put her through a lot.

This is the last train of the journey, but we are still only about two-thirds of the way through the story. From then on, while I was writing, I really missed the trains. They made so many decisions about the narrative for me – I very literally just followed the tracks. Once the characters arrived at the end of the line I was back in the big bad world of choices, where I had to carve out a narrative path for myself.

This, therefore, is the point in the book where things get odd. There are live jewel-covered birds and plant-based-disguises and elaborately constructed break-ins, because my untrammelled brain can’t be trusted.

Taking this journey was the most enjoyable, useful, memorable writing process I have ever tried. If you ever want to take the journey yourself, or any other international train journeys, I highly recommend www.seat61.com – incredible stuff. And I hope you enjoy the book!

The Secret of the Night Train by Sylvia Bishop is out now, published by Scholastic (RRP £6.99), and you can buy it here. Or, win one of my two copies (with thanks to Scholastic) by finding my MinervaReads Facebook page and commenting on this post.

 

Social Action Picture Books

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gender Roles:
looking after williamLooking After William by Eve Coy

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

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

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

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

Animal Conservation:
hello helloHello Hello by Brendan Wenzel

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Secret of the Night Train by Sylvia Bishop, illustrated by Marco Guadalupi

secret of the night trainI’m often asked, how do I pick a book to be my book of the week? With non-fiction it’s easy to tick off criteria, and then spot the something special about the book. With fiction, it’s almost easier. The books pick me. Within about ten pages I usually suspect if it’s got that hint of magic that makes me want to keep reading, that quality which makes me feel for the characters, the emotion that gives me that tinge of sadness or spark of happiness. Very rarely, with great hope and shining eyes, I pencil in a book that hasn’t even arrived yet. I feel the tingle from afar, based on past novels, or something in the publisher’s email that pulled.

The Secret of the Night Train was pencilled in, but within ten pages I knew it was a dead cert. Sylvia Bishop previously won my heart with The Bookshop Girl, and she has twiddled her pen and made magic again.

Max is on a thrilling train journey across Europe. Her Great Aunt Elodie in Instanbul summons a member of her Parisian family to be her temporary companion, and Max, being the youngest and the least busy, takes the challenging adventure. Except it becomes so much more than she imagines, because the Heartbreak Diamond is missing, and the police think it’s on her train. With her travelling chaperone, a nun, will Max find the will and the way to seek the diamond herself and capture the thief before the train reaches Istanbul?

The book takes the format of the train journey, setting the chapters in different sections of the journey from Paris through Munich, Budapest and Bucharest to Istanbul. And while Max whittles down the passengers to a final list of suspects, she may be closer to the thief than she had imagined.

This is the tale of an ordinary life interrupted, told beautifully and with childlike wonder. Bishop completely nails Max’s feeling of trepidation for her journey – a homesickness before she’s even left, and plays on this subtle combination of wistfulness for home and longing for adventure. Bishop also has impeccable comic timing, and a deliciously wicked insight into being the smallest of a larger family.

Tucked in are a few jokes for adults too, in case this is an adventure the reader is sharing with their child, and I particularly chuckled at Max’s mother’s mannerisms and question avoidance. Bishop has a delightful turn of phrase, which makes an everyday story feel fresh and lively with every sentence:

“Then one day, when December had arrived and iced Paris all over with a slippery frosting, Max skidded-slid-stumbled home from school to find her mother on the phone. She was saying ‘Mm-hmm, of course’ with her voice, and YOU ARE AN UNBEARABLE STRAIN ON MY SAINTLY PATIENCE with her eyes.”

And also tenderly wise:

“That is the trouble with ideas that you have before dawn: they are extra sticky.”

Bishop also plays with expectations: not only in Max’s gender – full name Maximilienne, but also with the suspects and their intentions and motivations – keeping the reader guessing. The narrative feels slightly retro or timeless with parents who don’t helicopter or track their child’s movements, but also a child who has the time to be bored, and thus to seek adventure. But there are still moments of modern sensibility throughout:

“it turned out that even in this strange new country, miles away from her own, all the statues were still of a man-on-a-horse,”

But I think one of the most stellar qualities about this piece of writing is that despite having a gentle rhythm that mimicks the chugging of a train, it also feels tense and exciting, mirroring Max’s emotions.

This is a fabulous story with suitably elegant European illustrations, a terrifically authentic heroine (who often takes the naughtier option), and a cast of eccentrics who are beautifully imagined. Don’t miss your own trip on the Night Train, it’s a winning adventure. (I’ve even pencilled in Sylvia Bishop’s next….you probably should too). You can buy The Secret of the Night Train here. Or click here to see how to win a copy.

Riding a Donkey Backwards

riding a donkey backwardsAs we celebrate the month of Ramadan, and think about how to increase diversity and representation in the books our children are reading, this sumptuous hardback, Riding a Donkey Backwards dropped onto my doormat, and I had to share it with you. It’s a collection of 21 tales and riddles about a trickster known across Muslim culture. Mulla Nasruddin is both the wisest man and the biggest fool. Through telling some of his stories, all contained on one or two pages, Sean Taylor, the Khayaal Theatre, and Shirin Adl bring the tales to life with drama and creativity.

Each tale is only a paragraph or two long – spanning one or two pages, with full double page colour collage illustrations. The text is jaunty and chatty, as befits the subject, and some tales and riddles leave a wry smile, others pose philosophical questions. Many invite critical thinking, but there are those that are just silly – on purpose. The text feels modern, but the illustrations feel traditional – set in familiar age-old landscapes, such as a school, a kitchen table, a market place. A Nice Steam Bath is illustrated to look as if it’s a wordless comic strip or an ancient scroll, and many of the collages use domestic materials such as a child might use: cotton wool beards, glass bead rivers. They are bright and welcoming, playful and intelligent.

Below, Sean Taylor explains about the book.

How did Riding a Donkey Backwards come about?

“It came about, indirectly, because of a terror attack. Back on 7th January 2015, there was a massacre in Paris, at the offices of Charlie Hebdo magazine. That day, I could feel people in the UK were shaken by the nearness of the violence, and I sensed some ‘retreating into shells’ going on. This made me want to do the opposite. At an event at Shakespeare’s Globe about 12 years previously, I’d met Luqman Ali and he’d given me a leaflet about Khayaal Theatre. Khayaal is a theatre company founded by him and Eleanor Martin. It is dedicated to showcasing the rich traditions of story, poetry and humour in Muslim cultures, and also to building engagement between Muslim communities and the wider world. I kept the leaflet Luqman had given me. Sometimes I’d come across it, wonder if there might be some way of collaborating with Khayaal, and decide probably not. But, that day, I wrote to Luqman. Looking back, my message said, among other things:

I have no more connection with, or understanding of, the Islamic world than you would expect from a man with an interest in stories and poetry who grew up in the home counties of England. My strongest connections are, in fact, not to the east, but to the west. My wife is from, Brazil. We have lived there on and off over the past twenty years. But rather than seeing these things as obstacles, I shall, for the sake of this message, see them as reasons for making connection. Might we meet? Might we talk a bit about stories, and about theatre and about work with young people? Might something fruitful result from this impulse to reach out? ”

What happened next?

“We did meet, at the British Library, a few weeks later. And it was clear that, though we are from quite different cultural backgrounds, we had a lot in common in terms of our work around story and education, and our shared interest in the imagination, dreams and humour. So it seemed natural to try to find a way to work together. I had in mind there might be ways Khayaal could make use of my experience of writing for theatre. Actually, they expressed an interest in writing a children’s book. So the idea of retelling some of the stories of Mulla Nasruddin in a publication for young readers was born. I thought newly-founded Otter-Barry Books might show interest in the project. And I’m happy to say they did.”

Who exactly is Mulla Nasruddin?

“There’s no exact answer. Some say Nasruddin was a real man who lived in the thirteenth century. Nobody knows for sure! Many different countries claim to be his birthplace, including Turkey and Iran. In the introduction to the book we say:

He has many names because stories about him are told in many different countries. In Turkey he is Hodja. In Central Asia he is Afandi. The Arabs know him as Joha. Others call him Mulla Nasruddin. He is a trickster. And Muslims all over the world love him because he makes them laugh. If he doesn’t make you laugh, he will certainly make you think – and perhaps think sideways instead of straight ahead. He may even make your thoughts do somersaults inside your mind!”

Why retell these Nasruddin stories?

“They are age-old stories, but I think they are absolutely relevant to the times we live in. Nasruddin challenges fixed ways of looking at our world, and stuck ways of behaving. So the stories about him fly in the face of fundamentalist thinking – whether it be the single-track thinking of Islamist fundamentalism or the equally narrow thinking of Islamophobia. Take a story like the one we’ve called They Can’t Both Be Right! In this, Mulla Nasruddin is asked to settle an argument between two men, in a tea house. Nasruddin listens to the first man and says, “You are right.” Then he listens to the second man and says, “You are right.” Then the owner of the tea-house says, “Well, they can’t both be right!” And Nasruddin says, “You are right!” This is a brilliant, light-hearted way of pointing out that the world cannot be seen in black and white (as more and more people seem happy to see it.) In another story, called Don’t Ask Me! the donkey Nasruddin is riding is startled by a snake. As the donkey gallops madly off, a young farmer calls out, “Where are you going, Nasruddin?” Nasruddin calls back, “Don’t ask me! Ask the donkey!” Can you feel how this has a message for anyone who thinks they have simple answers to the challenges of our times? When an out-of-control donkey is carrying you, how can you sit there stiffly certain about where you are going? At one level this tale is just a funny anecdote. But scratch its surface (or the surface of the other stories in our book) and you find wisdom. Nasruddin asks fresh questions in the face of ready-made answers. The stories in Riding a Donkey Backwards offer new ways of thinking to anyone numbed by the world, or feeling driven to recrimination and aggression. These are reasons why we wanted to bring Nasruddin, his provocations and his heartfelt laughter to life for young readers.”

How was the book created?

“Khayaal Theatre’s Eleanor Martin joined Luqman and me in the writing process. And it turned out to be a fruitful collaboration, with lots of discussion, and drafts to-ing and fro-ing as we worked out which Nasruddin stories to include and how to tell them on the page. Otter-Barry Books brought Iranian illustrator Shirin Adl on board, and Shirin came up with the wonderfully crafted illustrations which make Riding a Donkey Backwards so beautiful to look at.”

With thanks to Sean Taylor. You can buy Riding a Donkey Backwards here.

Rose’s Dress of Dreams

roses dress of dreamsThere may be plenty of books featuring biographies of amazing women jostling for space on the shelves at the moment, but for children looking for a short contained fiction that does the same job, accompanied by sensational illustrations, they’d do well to pick up Rose’s Dress of Dreams by Katherine Woodfine, illustrated by Kate Pankhurst. Based on the life of Rose Bertin, the woman credited with creating haute-couture, this is a divinely illustrated historical fiction of determination and dreams.

Woodfine expertly weaves the story of Rose’s passion and abundant energy as she transforms herself from a young apprentice into a budding businesswoman. In the face of rejection, Rose triumphs through her own hard work, and changes people’s negative mindsets as she does so. In the face of doubt and drudgery, Rose still dreams of fabrics and ideas of style and by the end is dressing royalty.

There’s some imaginative wordplay that sweeps the reader along, with Woodfine drawing on all the senses as she describes the sensuous business of dressmaking. But there’s also plenty of spark and personality as the reader learns that clothes can bring confidence to the wearer, and that friendship and manners play their part too.

Pankhurst’s illustrations do far more than just complement the text. Known already for her portraits of famous women in children’s books, and also for her flair for historical detail, here she draws the furniture and chandeliers of the time, matching them with Parisian architecture, and of course fashions. Together, Woodfine and Pankhurst have created a truly shining gem of a book. What’s more it’s a Little Gem by Barrington Stoke, so perfect for even the most reluctant of readers (this is short fiction with bite-size paragraphs and tinted pages).

I’m delighted to showcase a Kate Pankhurst illustration from the book – this one is from page 16, beginning Chapter 3: The Streets of Paris.

Tempted? See Katherine reading the matching chapter of the book here:

And you can buy your own copy here.

 

First Day of Spring

This week heralds the official first day of Spring, apparently named because in the 14th century ‘springing time’ was a reference to the time of year when plants were ‘springing’ from the ground. And so, a few nature books for you, to usher in the return of migratory birds and draw inspiration from the natural world.

bird houseBird House by Libby Walden, illustrated by Clover Robin
Beautifully designed, with lift-the-flap features, this is a perfect first nature book for little hands. Adorably shaped like a house, the book endeavours to teach about different bird species and their homes. The first page deals with ducks, and man-made duck houses, but also features nests, and gives the names for male and female ducks, groups and babies.

The book goes on to cover pigeons and doves, woodpeckers, swallows, sparrows and owls, with hints at the back for how to create a bird-friendly outdoors space. The book is as sturdy as you’d want a bird house to be, with earthy colours throughout, and much green. The illustrations are cartoon-like rather than anatomical, but layered with wonderful textures, and give a true indication of colouring.

Also available is Bug Hotel, with facts about favourite garden insects and instructions for building your own bug hotel. An attractive, lively and informative start for young readers. You can buy it here.

 

 

earth verseEarth Verse by Sally M Walker and William Grill
Something completely different in this stunning picture book that tells the story of the Earth through poetry and illustration.

A haiku on each page simply suggests the beauty and majesty of the planet we live on, starting with a pulled-back image of the Earth as seen from space, with swirling blue and white. The book progresses through a host of illustrations that draw near or zoom out – from the outer crust to layered sediment, huge cliffs and fossil finds, to small flowers perched upon sand dunes.

Each has a concentrated description in this briefest form of poetry, and each illustration in coloured pencil is an impression rather than a factual diagram – a brushstroke of nature. It suits the poetry, which aims to inspire and to emote, (with further reading resources given at the back). The illustrations also suit the sensibility of the book, which is child-friendly and dreamlike in tone.

Colours stream throughout the book – blue to start as we see the planet from space, startling red for fire, then stripes of wonder as the rocks shift and layer with sediment.

The words resound with magnitude, as Walker gallops through dramatic natural events – a volcano, a tsunami, a storm – showing the violence and force, as well as the calm of a gull wearing ‘sand socks’ as it leaves footprints across the shore.

Walker uses personification to bring the haikus close to readers – the intimacy of the fiery fingers, the tiptoes of the creatures. The hotheaded mountain throwing an igneous tantrum. The words and images are both appealing and familiar.

And together Grill and Walker add elements of where there is an Intersection of human involvement in nature, an interaction with our planet.

There are also pages of prose information at the back; the reader is guided to these by a visual key of nine symbols, including minerals, fossils, glaciers, groundwater. These full paragraphs explain their topic well, but the diagrams accompanying are unlabelled and therefore tricky for a novice to decipher.

One for inspiration and awe. 8+ years. You can buy it here.

treesWhat On Earth? Trees by Kevin Warwick and Pau Morgan
For full-on, comprehensive knowledge, What On Earth? is an immensely high quality non-fiction series. This particular book covers all aspects of trees (for the very young), and also ties the basic scientific knowledge into hands-on activities, as well as interconnecting it with culture and history – something for which cross-curricular teachers will be grateful.

The first section takes a look at the different parts of a tree – with an in-depth look at leaves and their shapes and sizes, followed by information spreads on seeds and dispersal, needles and trunks. Interspersed between the information pages are spreads labelled ‘investigate’ or ‘create’ and these contain activities. Both artistic – creating a tree on paper using fallen leaves, to scientific – testing how far seeds travel – there is something for everyone.

The ideas are simply explained and easy to execute, but inspirational and fun. Drawing in other cultures and their stories adds a new dynamic, and of course there is the requisite section on global warming and the effect upon trees.

The digital illustrations are colourful, bright and friendly, and encourage the reader to really engage with the natural world, looking at what grows around them and giving clear step-by-step guidance on the activity spreads. The book will not only teach about trees, but about how to conduct first scientific experiments of exploration and investigation.

There’s an easy conclusion to draw here – this is a fantastic piece of non-fiction in which every page earns its worth – the tree this book originated from would be proud! 6+ years. Buy your own here.