owl

The Lollies

Nearly two thirds of children aged between 6-17 years say that when choosing books to read, they want books that make them laugh, according to Scholastic’s Kids and Family Reading Report 2015. So it was with some dismay that the children’s book publishing world watched the closure of the Roald Dahl Funny Book Prize last year.

However, in its place come the Lollies – The Laugh Out Loud Book Awards, launched by Scholastic in 2015 – and supported by Michael Rosen and the Book Trust. The shortlist was announced in February, and voting is now open for teachers to register votes on behalf of their classes and schools. The links and voting deadlines are at the bottom of the article. There are three categories: Picture books; 6-8yrs, and 9-13yrs. Here follow reviews of the four shortlisted picture books.

Best Laugh Out Loud Picture Book

hoot owl

Hoot Owl, Master of Disguise by Sean Taylor and Jean Jullien
This bright, distinctive book with deceptively simple-looking illustrations is a hoot from the start. The eyes give it all away throughout this cleverly paced picture book, which is a delight for adults and children.

Telling the story of Hoot Owl, who disguises himself to pounce on his prey, Sean Taylor takes an older narrative concept and warps it for the younger age group. Although a picture book, the text reads, unusually for this format, in first person construct and with an extremely unreliable narrator. Hoot Owl tells his own story, awarding himself the title of ‘master of disguise’; this owl is not just wise. In fact this rhyming refrain is key to the story, as each disguise is more and more ridiculous and unwise, and each plan is unsuccessful, despite the owl’s keen boasting.

He dresses as a carrot to entice a rabbit, and a sheep to entice….a lamb. The costumes are of course blatant humour for the child reader, but the text keeps the adult amused with its tongue-in-cheek poking at ‘real’ literature conceits:

“The night has a thousand eyes, and two of them are mine.”

And

“The terrible silence of the night spreads everywhere.
But I cut through it like a knife.”

Even children will giggle at “The lamb is a cuddly thing, but soon I will be eating it.” Particularly when they view the accompanying illustration of a cute white lamb with glasses, set against a black backdrop. A simpler, more innocent looking lamb you could not find.

The eyes win the story through – in each case Hoot Owl’s eyes looking askance at his prey, or the wide-eyed stare at the reader. And the ending – well the ending is a child-perfect solution. An excellent shortlist title. A big ter-wit-ter-woo. You can hoot for it below and buy it here.

slug needs a hug

Slug Needs a Hug by Jeanne Willis and Tony Ross
Two colossi of the children’s book world, Willis and Ross, also lead with an unconventional main character in their latest picture book. Slug Needs a Hug – the concept is in the title – anyone who comes across a slug will be loath to touch it and anyone who knows children is aware that slugs remain a source of fascination and disgust.

In this story, though, pathos abounds as even slug’s mother won’t hug him. His glum face and cute sticky up eyes provoke empathy from the beginning, and Willis cleverly portrays him with a mixture of this interest and grossness with her rhyming text:

“Once upon a time-y,
There was a little slimy,
Spotty, shiny, whiny slug.”

He is at once unappealing and pathetic, yet needy of our love and attention. Her subversiveness in making words rhyme by adding a ‘y’ is a giggle-factor in itself. This book too relies on disguise, as the slug asks other creatures for help, and then in order to be more like them – cuter – he dresses up in aspects of their demeanour – “to make himself more huggable, less slithery and sluggable”. He dons a furry jacket to seem more catlike (as well as a hat with a picture of a cat on it), and trotters like the pig, and a string moustache – like the goat’s handsome goatee beard.

Of course the irony is clear – none of these other creatures is particularly cuddly either (note the cow and its udders) – and Ross paints them as being rather arrogant and vain – the picture of the goat posing, stroking his beard, is simply perfection.

Slug’s lack of self-esteem and thoughts of his own ugliness are banished in the end – his mother’s reason for not hugging him is again, the perfect ending to a picture book. Complete common sense. You can hug a slug here.

gracie grabbit

Gracie Grabbit and the Tiger by Helen Stephens
One of our favourite picture books is How to Hide a Lion, so it comes as no surprise that Gracie Grabbit is equally well-drawn and adorable. The themes continue – big cats and burglars – but in a new story with another tantalisingly oddbod heroine.

Gracie Grabbit’s defining feature is that her father is a robber, and Stephens is at great pains to point out how naughty this is. On a day out to the zoo, Gracie’s Dad can’t help steal things from people and animals, but when his back is turned, Gracie returns all the items. The only problem – she returns them to the wrong owners, with surprising results.

Laughs come from all over the place with this book – from the stereotypical eye mask and stripy top that the robber wears no matter where he is, to the stance of little Gracie who is forever wagging her finger at her naughty Daddy or telling on him. Her cuteness, of course, contrasts hugely with the naughtiness of her father.

But the concept is what wins the giggles. Gracie’s Dad steals the silliest things and Gracie gives them back blatantly incorrectly: a wet fish back to the baby, the rattle to the snake, the egg to the lady and the hat to the penguins. The expressions are priceless, the egg on the lady’s head a wonderful illustration. And then of course there’s the winsome tiger.

The crowd at the zoo seem very old-fashioned, as does the tale itself which is sweet and wholesome in the end – naughtiness is punished. Modern touches abound though, as Stephens is good at including diversity, and brightness in her illustrations. Hugely enjoyed by the children testing it here – maybe because of the familiarity of the illustrator, but also surely for the fun in the robber getting his comeuppance, and the child being wiser and more well-behaved than the adult. A good tiger tale. You can buy it here.

i need a wee

I Need a Wee! by Sue Hendra and Paul Linnet
More big guns from the picture book world, Sue Hendra can do no wrong – from Supertato to Barry the Fish with Fingers, Hendra is another household name. This title though, as with the slug, the robber and the pomposity of Hoot Owl, takes a subject that is fairly taboo, and makes it the dominant characteristic of the book. The cover illustration of a teddy bear holding himself with his legs in the ‘need a wee’ position sums it up, and is appealing immediately (to a young child).

The brightness of the book – the cover is a luminous yellow with pink and green lettering, with a beautifully textured bear – continues throughout, as the story follows a group of toys and in particular our bear, Alan (even the name is comical for a teddy). He is having a fun day out, but needs a wee.

As is common with pre-schoolers, Alan is too engrossed in what he is doing to make the time to go and wee – the world is just too exciting. From queuing for a slide (then not wanting to leave the queue as he’s nearly at the front) to attending a tea party, and then reaching the toilet only to find a queue there too – this is a hilarious little story.

The touches in the illustrations are excellent – Linnet’s penguin blowing a party horn, the wind up toys, and those on springs, the size difference between Alan and dolly (who kindly invites him back to her house to use her toilet, only to find of course that the doll’s house is tiny).

Alan looks like a well-loved worn toy, which only adds to the charm, and Hendra excels in the items that Alan wants to resort to weeing into to alleviate himself – a teapot, a hat….

The ending is well-executed and very funny indeed. Watch out too for the blob who comes second place in the dance competition. This is a book that made me smile despite being entirely toilet humour! You can spend a penny on it here!

You can buy the books and vote NOW. Children will decide the ultimate winners in each category with their class votes (see here and parents can read information on how to get involved here.) Voting closes on the 10th June 2016.

The other categories are as follows:

Best Laugh Out Loud Book for 6-8 year olds

Badly Drawn Beth by Jem Packer and Duncan McCoshan

Wilf the Mighty Worrier: Saves the World by Georgia Pritchett and Jamie Littler

The Jolley-Rogers and the Cave of Doom by Jonny Duddle

Thorfinn the Nicest Viking and the Awful Invasion by David MacPhail and Richard Morgan

Best Laugh Out Loud Book for 9-13 year olds.

Danger is Still Everywhere: Beware of the Dog by David O’Doherty and Chris Judge

Petunia Perry and the Curse of the Ugly Pigeon by Pamela Butchart and Gemma Correll

Emily Sparkes and the Friendship Fiasco by Ruth Fitzgerald

The Parent Agency by David Baddiel and Jim Field

 

With thanks to Scholastic for the books, and related information. 

The Dark All Around Us

Many small children have a fear of the dark. This can be difficult to address because the dark is an abstract idea; the fear is of the unknown, which makes it hard to conjure in a picture book. However, I have found five books that I think do the job really well in different ways. I’ve listed them in a kind of youngest to oldest order (lots of quibble room here though).

can't you sleep little bear

Can’t you Sleep Little Bear by Martin Waddell, illustrated by Barbara Firth

Although not immediately apparent that this about a fear of the dark, Can’t you Sleep Little Bear displays a perfect juxtaposition of darkness and light. The book kicks off with a light-drenched illustration as the bears play in the snow in bright sunlight, but then soon retreat home for bed to the Bear Cave as the sun goes down. Immediately the illustrations move to the ‘dark’ part of the cave where Little Bear is trying (and failing) to sleep. During the course of the book, Big Bear fetches larger and larger lanterns for Little Bear in the hope of trying to disperse the “dark all around us”. There’s no magic resolution to the story, as it becomes apparent that tiredness overcomes the fear in the end, but it does try to illustrate that there is no real dark, as even outside in the dark, the moon and stars overcome it, and Little Bear ends up “warm and safe in Big Bear’s arms”. There is nothing remotely frightening in this book, no hidden shadows or shapes in the ‘darkness’, just a comforting glow of the adult space. In this way, it can comfort the smallest of children. (There’s even a touch of humour added for the impatient grown up reader).

can't you sleep little bear2

 

There’s a Dragon Downstairs by Hilary McKay, illustrated by Amanda Harvey
This book won various awards about a decade ago and tackles the darkness in a solid way by illuminating the dark’s distortion of everyday things into monstrous entities; the darkness makes the familiar appear fearsome. Even the pencil lines of the illustrations indicate the ephemeral shadiness of the darkness. There is much sympathy for our protagonist Sophie from her parents, who valiantly search the house for the dragon, although in the end it is Sophie who must fight her own demons! Of course, the end is beautifully reassuring (spoiler alert!) – the dragon is revealed to be none other than the friendly domestic cat. A great way to explore a child’s fear without stating the obvious.

 there's a dragon downstairs

The Owl who was Afraid of the Dark by Jill Tomlinson, illustrated by Paul Howard
A beautiful picture book, which I read as a child as a chapter book – today it is published in both formats. The owl parents in this instance are ‘laissez-faire’ parents, sending the child owl ‘Plop’ to do some research on why it’s good to be a night owl! Plop interviews various humans (and a cat) about the dark to find out why they like it. Each character supplies Plop with a new adjective about the dark:
“The small boy said DARK IS EXCITING. The old lady said DARK IS KIND. The little girl said DARK IS NECESSARY. The man with the telescope said DARK IS WONDERFUL.”
Jill Tomlinson manages to convey Plop’s stubborn childlike qualities in his language;
“I still do not like it AT ALL”,
although he is persuaded in the end. The picture book, illustrated by Paul Howard, conveys the excitement of the fireworks and the magical quality of the night stars, as well providing the most exquisite owl drawings. A book that confronts the fear head on! I never tire of it.

owl who was afraid3owl who was afraid1

 

The Dark by Lemony Snicket, illustrated by Jon Klassen

A more recent picture book that confronts the fear head on is The Dark. The pictures as much as the text in this book simulate the fear of the little boy Laszlo, who is seen only in rays of light, while the rest of the page stays in the dark. The dark is even personified here, given a voice halfway through the book, which itself is pretty frightening:
“The voice of the dark was as creaky as the roof of the house, and as smooth and cold as the windows, and even though the dark was right next to Laszlo, the voice seemed very far away.”
I’ve suggested this is for slightly older readers because although immensely powerful, during most of the book the illustrations are fairly threatening. Laszlo is a brave hero and ventures further and further into the dark, until the dark is finally explained by Snicket, in fact – explained in the same way as the little girl in The Owl Who Was Afraid of the Dark – as being necessary! The darkness is also generous in The Dark, giving Laszlo a lightbulb to explain how without the dark:
“you would never know if you needed a lightbulb”.
A tricky concept, adeptly handled.

Dark Lemony Snicket

Little Mouse’s Big Book of Fears by Emily Gravett
This is not strictly about the dark, although there is a page about being alone or in the dark, but Emily Gravett’s book uses a different tool from the other books to conquer fears, which is perhaps worth mentioning here: art. Big Book of Fears sets out lots of things that may be frightening, from common childhood fears of dogs and getting lost, to fears that are slightly more obscure, such as fear of clocks, but each time the illustrator implores you to overcome your fears through use of art. Not such a bad idea, when for children, expressing emotions through pictures can be an illuminating task. The other undercurrent here for confronting and defeating fear is humour. The scared mouse taking us through the pages, delights parent and child alike as it recoils from ‘knives’ in a page that features newspaper cuttings on the ‘three blind mice and the farmer’s wife’. There are some excellent pull-outs here too – the page on heights features an exciting map of the Isle of Fright. A great book for starting a conversation about what’s scary and how fears can be confronted and conquered.

Little Mouse book of fears