picturebooks

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. 

 

Spring 2018 Picture Books

Picture books is a genre that groups books together because of their format rather than their content. The books reviewed below are all strikingly different – some we may think of as traditional picture books in that they’re aimed for younger readers and impart a funny story using animals as characters, and often deliver a message while doing so. But I’ve also covered some books for the slightly older reader in my ten picture books picks of this season, in no particular order:

a bear is a bear
A Bear is a Bear (except when he’s not) by Karl Newson and Anuska Allepuz
A wonderfully simpatico book about a tired bear who forgets who and what he is until a good sleep sees him wake up refreshed and knowledgeable. He tries to be all kinds of animals, from a bird to a fox, but the other animals’ habitats, behaviours and eating habits do not suit his skills and sensibility. After hibernating, he rediscovers the truth and finds his appetite. This is a warm and humorous book with rhyming text, a delightful exploration of the seasons through illustration, and the introduction of woodland creatures, including a moose. The text is written in an invitingly read-aloud style, as if the reader is a narrator talking to the bear. Endearing, friendly and colourful. You can buy it here.

i do not like books anymore
I Do Not Like Books Anymore! by Daisy Hirst
Another one for the fairly young, this will also be a favourite among teachers trying to encourage first time readers to push through. Characters Natalie and Alphonse first appeared in Alphonse, That is Not Okay To Do, primarily about sibling relationships, but this story takes these two little monsters through the course of learning to read. Although they adore books and stories, Natalie starts to struggle to learn to read and in the process, becomes disillusioned about books. With some help from her little brother, Alphonse, Natalie comes up with a strategy to rebuild her confidence, and before long stories and books are favourites again. A fantastic tale about perseverance that is close to home for many readers. Hirst is particularly clever in portraying a familiar domestic environment, with the monsters in typical childlike poses – be it on a swing or reading with legs in the air, sitting on a bus or playing in the bathroom. Look out for the wider cast of characters – a simple but effective way of drawing our modern world. You can buy it here.

almost anything
Almost Anything by Sophy Henn
On a similar theme, although not so specifically on reading, this is Henn’s message that anyone can do anything if they put their mind to it. George is a rabbit with somewhat downcast ears. Everyone else in the woods is busy (birds who play chess, a squirrel who reads, a mouse who knits), but George doesn’t feel confident doing anything, and so does nothing. It is only when Bear comes up with a simple yet cunning plan that George finds the confidence to attempt everything and stop at nothing. Despite Bear’s scruffy looking appearance, she comes up trumps with wisdom, ensuring and inspiring self-belief in others. With Henn’s gentle colour palette, and deceptively simple plot and illustrations, this is a clever, inspirational little picture book that captures the essence of finding confidence, having a go, and importantly, enjoying oneself too (as well as, may I suggest, respecting the wisdom of elders). You can buy it here.

dinosaur juniors
Dinosaur Juniors Happy Hatchday by Rob Biddulph
Long a fan of Biddulph’s simple, almost monosyllabic, rhymes, it seems this author/illustrator can do no wrong. With this first of a brand new series, he has now turned his attention to that perennial love of pre-schoolers – dinosaurs. The illustrations are trademark Biddulph – simple shapes with almost three-dimensional texture, and a bold colour palette – dominated by green in this tree-filled landscape of our green protagonist dinosaur. Biddulph brings a range of topics to this ostensibly simple text about a group of dinosaurs hatching – from counting, to fitting in, to naming dinosaurs, to friendship. Greg is the last to hatch, but is shown to be equally loved and appreciated by the end of the book. Biddulph’s bright colours and stylish illustrations will delight a whole truckload of wannabe palaeontologists. You can buy it here.

nimesh
Nimesh the Adventurer by Ranjit Singh and Mehrdokht Amini
Taking a more complicated route with illustration is this dynamic and interesting new picture book about imagination. Nimesh is an Indian boy in London who uses his imagination to turn the ordinary into the extraordinary, from crossing the road to walking through the park on his way home from school. His school corridor is fairly nondescript: a range of notices upon the wall, a few cupboards and chairs, and a wall display of a hammerhead shark as part of shark week. But the following page leads the reader into Nimesh’s imagination, as he sees the corridor as an underwater labyrinth, a school door sprouting from the sea bed, sharks, plants and fish layered upon the school floor with the staircase and fire exit in the distance. The illustrations are collage – a remarkable letting loose of the illustrator to use their imagination as they envisage what Nimesh sees in his vivid mind. The entire book is related in dialogue too – as if the voice of reason is in conversation with the voice of imagination. Children will delight in finding the clue in each ‘ordinary’ picture of the ‘extraordinary’ to come. London becomes magical in this richly layered, diverse and fascinating tale. Extraordinarily different. You can buy it here.

little mole
Little Mole is a Whirlwind by Anna Llenas
Another story revealed in collage illustrations is this interestingly busy book about a little mole with ADHD. Mole can’t stop – the book is full of distraction and interaction as Mole moves through his school day at pace, fidgeting, forgetting, and playing the fool. Unfortunately, his peers find him irritating rather than funny, and his mole parents try to find a way of helping their whirlwind son. Serena the bunny gives Mole the space to experiment and explore, to talk and to listen, and finally Mole and his classmates accept who he is. This may be an unsubtle way of dealing with an issue – Mole at one point is illustrated with luggage labels ‘labelling’ him, but the overall premise is dealt with wonderfully in the busy collage style – pencil and cardboard drawings cut out and layered on top of each other. It creates a busy landscape and shows Mole’s world well. Frenzied but enjoyable. You can buy it here.

forever or a day
Forever or a Day by Sarah Jacoby
In complete contrast, this magically calm picture book for older readers tries to explore the concept of time. Taking subtlety to an extreme, the book reads as a poetic meditation, alluding to the subject matter rather than addressing it directly. Both picture and text combine to explore the elasticity of time – the calm pictures of seaside days contrast with the rushing for a train. There is musing on ageing and how time stretches back and seems far away, as well as added humour in the time spent waiting for a bus. There is the mindfulness of being in the present and appreciating the time now. With a mixture of striking landscapes from afar and up close domestic scenes, this is a thoughtful and somewhat wistful look at how we live and what we lose as we move through life. Clever parallel images appear throughout the book, letting the reader make connections between things and people, between time when young, and time when old. A sandcastle washes away to nothing, a train recedes into the distance, days turn to night. This is a complex, powerful book about one day, and how in memory a day may last forever. You can buy it here.

red bottomed robber
The Case of the Red-Bottomed Robber by Richard Byrne
Master of the playful picture book, Byrne returns with this old-school tale about chalk who love to draw but get upset when their drawings are erased while they are out at play. In true mystery style, they investigate the ‘theft’ of their drawings, weighing up the evidence, which is chalk dust, and rounding up suspicious characters, including the scissors, glue and ruler. When they finally catch the robber red-handed, or rather ‘bottomed’, he feels unjustly accused – after all rubbing out is his raison d’etre. A funny tale, well told on black backgrounds representative of the chalkboard, children will delight in the ‘bottom’ tale, as well as the use of chalk with expressive personalities. Not too far removed from The Day the Crayons Quit, this picture book is shorter, and perfect for exploring a first mystery case, or just enjoying the colourful mess chalks can make. You can buy it here.

glassmakers daughter
The Glassmaker’s Daughter by Dianne Hofmeyr, illustrated by Jane Ray
Far more long-lasting than chalk is coloured glass, in this exquisitely beautiful fairy tale of Daniela, the daughter of a 16th century Venetian glassmaker. Daniela is miserable, and her father offers a glass palace to the first person to make her smile. In true fairy tale trope, many try, including jugglers, mask makers and trumpet players, but only the last glassmaker manages, by making Daniela a mirror in which she can laugh at the sad miserable face she shows to the world. Although it feels like a classic princess tale, there is no ‘happy marriage’ at the end, and indeed those of both genders who try to make her smile are not motivated by thoughts of a wedding. This is about finding happiness within oneself rather than with another person – and how laughter is catching. But more than this, the picture book gives historical detail about glassmaking in Venice, and shows originality and immense detail in the exquisite illustrations – and a sparkle of glass when it shatters in the middle. An intriguing, historical, luxurious picture book that explores European culture. You can buy it here.

out out away from here
Out, Out, Away From Here by Rachel Woodworth and Sang Miao
A completely different illustrative style, but also in a book lavishly produced, is Woodworth’s tale of exploring emotion and escape. The red-haired narrator of this book acknowledges in very few words that sometimes she feels happy, but sometimes mad and sad, and sometimes all at once. When things are particularly overwhelming, she seeks escape in her imagination, a wild place populated by nature, with faces in the shapes, and strange creatures, with domestic objects inserted in wild landscapes, where the domestic merges with the wild. But at the end, she always comes back to her fully domestic family scene. Miao has had fun with the scant text, letting her own imagination create crazy landscapes within the mind. The fusing of the familiar with the strange and the dreamlike colours are particularly effective – from orange skies to flying fish, vivid blue seas and unidentifiable shapes in greys and greens. The domesticity is well executed too, from the yellow mac on rainy days to the zoomed in picture of the girl with her hands in her hair as she listens to the baby scream. This is another well thought out book of emotion and intensity, with just the right balance of darkness and depth to create a wonderful narrative to promote discussion of our emotions and how we respond to them. Excellent. You can buy it here.

 

 

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.

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.

You’re Safe With Me by Chitra Soundar and Poonam Mistry

you're safe with meThere’s something about the physicality of a book that can’t be matched. Perhaps that’s why, as Egmont report in their Print Matters findings, 94% of children’s books bought in 2017 were purchased in their print format. If we look to history, it was the most important texts that were physically preserved – revered for the time invested in them. The Grimm Brothers saw the necessity of the oral folk tales, and therefore wrote them down. And picture books earn their place in this tradition of printed matter, with the attention to detail and care that goes into them.

Mass printed they might be, but sometimes picture books are so beautiful they appear as if they have been created with the individual reader in mind. This latest picture book, You’re Safe With Me from Chitra Soundar and Poonam Mistry, catches the eye with its lyrical prose, but also stands out for its stunning design, which calls up the kalamkari tradition of textiles, apt because the name derives from the Persian words for pen and craftsmanship – and this book does feel like a piece of exquisite craft.

It is a dark and stormy night, and the baby animals within the Indian forest are scared: a monkey, a loris, a tiger and a pangolin. Two familiar animals, two rather more exotic – familiarity for cosiness, and exotic for exploring and learning. Looking after them all is Mama Elephant – her size and wisdom providing solace and comfort.

A ‘Raindrops on Roses’ story for the young, this is a more in-depth and intelligent soothing of fears. Mama Elephants attempts to explain, with her scientific knowledge, the logical reason for the storm – why the wind blows, why the thunder clatters, why the river rumbles. In doing so, she explains the weather cycle – the ability of the wind to bring seeds, the rain to cause them to grow, the river to take the water back to the sea. But her language is poetic; and she speaks in a rhythm that soothes like a lullaby.

By naming each sound for the babies, and then explaining its purpose, she dispels their fear with understanding – a lesson for our times. This feels like an old fable, brought up to date with understanding and modern sensibility. An emotional attachment is formed with the animals, and a sense of relief in their comfort, much like the smell of Earth after a rainstorm.

But it is the illustrations that propel this book and make it so much more than a comforting bedtime read. The patterns on the page, the fusion of geometry and art, are drawn with a richness, almost a hypnotic quality. The reader sees the shapes of the animals, but each is so exquisitely drawn, etched with colour and design, so that the frogs are both stark against their background, but also blend into it with a riot of line and pattern. The fish swim on a background of blue circles, the lightning sparkles against a black background of shining diamonds and circles. It is absorbing, glossy and appears almost three-dimensional in its intricacy.

You’re Safe with Me is a triumph of a picture book. The rhythm of text and illustration sweep the reader into the story. I can imagine children hugging it to sleep, the physicality of this book reassuring and mesmeric. You can buy it here.

The Big Book of the Blue by Yuval Zommer

big book of the blueFollowing The Big Book of Bugs, and The Big Book of Beasts, Zommer dives into underwater territory with The Big Book of the Blue, and I think it’s his best yet. It bears the same format as the others in the series, large format hardbacks with double pages dedicated to a theme, and questions to introduce these – such as ‘How Does An Animal Breathe Underwater?’ And ‘When is a Turtle a Sea Turtle?’ Each question is answered with a simple one or two sentence paragraph.

This is a book more about trivia than in-depth knowledge, so for young readers it works spectacularly. I had no idea that a flying fish was blue on top so a bird flying above can’t spot it against the sea, for example, and these are just the sort of facts that children like to spout at random.

Zommer excels at creating distinctive illustrations too. The book is a wash of blue, gentle lines and shading in the background giving a sense of movement and depth (except for the deep exploration, in which there is a completely black background to represent menace and the unknown – the place where the sunlight doesn’t seep).

But it is the creatures that perform. Zommer gives his fish two eyes, even when they are in profile, which makes them stand out as different, but also gives them a slightly comic feel. His octopuses side-eye from the page, his sharks grin wickedly whilst glancing around them, his penguins look slightly mad as they waddle the shoreline or dive for fish – their heavy bones sinking them to the bottom of the page. Only the whales remain one-eyed for the main – their bodies too large to show both.

These features – the protruding mouths of the puffer fish, the pursed lips of the boxfish – lend a cartoon element to the illustrations, making them playful and imbuing them with personality. And accompanied by the scant text with minimal yet intriguing facts, this feels like an immersion in a strange playful underwater world.

There are numerous small touches that bring a smile to the reader – the magnifying glass to illuminate krill, (although nothing is to scale, this is an imagining of the sea in pictures), the teeth of the leopard seal, and also the pages on ‘how to talk like a sea life expert’. But there is plenty of seriousness too – Zommer points to the plastic polluting the sea, overfishing and global warming. There is information on sea depths, and a page on rock pools.

And there’s even an interactive element, with a ‘Can you Find’ feature throughout.

An index gives the book a proper non-fiction attribute, and with a sea-life expert consulting, this feels like the perfect starter non-fiction. The facts are verified, and although the text appears slight, there is a wealth of information within. By the end, even I could ‘talk like a sea life expert’, understanding words such as habitat, tide, food chain and plankton.

Chatty in tone, serious in information, this is a an exciting way to entice children to find out. You can dive into the deep for your own copy here.

Inspiring a New Generation of Space Experts

Stephen Hawking once declared that his goal was simple: “It is a complete understanding of the universe, why it is as it is and why it exists at all.” At what point do we begin to wonder about the universe, and when to want to understand it? Young readers in the library are often my most inquisitive. The five and six year olds gravitate towards non-fiction, asking questions about genes and trees, dinosaurs and evolution. And they have only to look up at the night sky to ask the big questions.

space kidsSpace Kids: An Introduction for Young Explorers by Andrea De Santis and Steve Parker
Space Kids introduces each element with a first person narrative voice. Nebula speaks first, explaining it is a wispy cloud of gas and dust. Then come Star and Constellation, Solar System and Asteroid. The text is clear and matter-of-fact with small tidbits of information. Steve Parker is a veteran of such non-fiction, and his clarity shines through.

The illustrations, showing a range of children exploring and enjoying their learning, changes tack halfway through, with a strange, almost futuristic look on the double page spread about rocks – narrated by Ariane 5.

The book then reverts to its colourful, child-friendly appearance towards the end, although finishes on a bit of a dud note with the page entitled ‘You’: vastly unnecessary and somewhat patronising.

What’s interesting is that the book leaves the impression of giving a general appreciation of Earth and space rather than imparting bucketloads of knowledge. But perhaps, at this age, some inspiration is necessary – inspiring curiosity is a major asset. You can buy it here.

once upon a starOnce Upon A Star by James Carter and Mar Hernandez
Told in rhyming poetry, this is another non-fiction book that bends to narrative and creative forms to impart information.

The poem tells the story of how the Earth was created, from emptiness and nothing to the Big Bang and through to the formation of the Earth and all that dwells upon it. It’s a feat of ingenuity that the rhyme and rhythm expertly tell the story while remaining true to their forms, and this alone is impressive.

But matching that is the brightness of the images, the almost retro-colour palette that also delights and inspires – the constant use of lines to indicate bursts of sun or energy, and a playfulness with the typeface that swirls the words around the page, whilst always maintaining legibility. It is smart to look at as well as to read.

This book, as the one above, aims to inspire as much as educate, although it gives the ‘sciencey’ bit at the end with some key facts spelt out acrostically.

This book leads to exploration and discovery and is beautifully produced. If read enough at bedtime, it could definitely inspire a future astrophysicist. You can buy it here.

Although both books show that science and the arts can mesh successfully, by taking narrative or poetic forms, sometimes the factual information given can feel a little light. For other space books, check out this blog here.

Let Them Eat Cake!

There’s a lot of cake in publishing: book launches have their fair share of wine, but there is a trend too for book-themed cakes and cupcakes. Has cake hit the zeitgeist because of the Great British Bake Off? Or is it just a perpetual British tradition?

Those looking after children have long known the effect of baking a cake with youngsters – you may end up with flour all over the kitchen, but it teaches science and maths, and there’s always a treat at the end. These picture books have captured the moment:

i really want the cakeI Really Want the Cake by Simon Philip and Lucia Gaggiotti

It’s so terribly tempting. A luscious chocolate cake has been made and is sitting on the table. There is no one around. Who could resist?

The little girl is intent upon having her cake and eating it in this endearing rhyming picture book. So much so, that just licking is not enough, and she resorts to eating the entire thing, (despite her mother’s note informing her not to), and then attempting to rectify her mistake by baking another.

Not only is the story terrifically entertaining, and written in such an enticing way that the reader simply has to read the story out loud with the correct inflection, but the illustrations match the tone completely.

This picture book hits every taste bud perfectly – because although the premise is simple, the execution is as flawless as smooth chocolate fudge icing, and the small details all piped on perfectly. Note the cakes instead of pupils in the little girl’s eyes, the dog a complicit partner in crime, and the exquisite mix of mischievousness, wicked intent, culpability and cuteness of the protagonist. There’s a recipe at the back for those who wish to also make a cake as an apologetic gift for their mother! Top prize. Devour it here.

Cake by Sue Hendra and Paul Linnet

One of my little book testers stopped eating peas a couple of years ago, and I’m sure it’s got something to do with Sue Hendra’s Supertato books and the evil nemesis within – Evil Pea. So, we were both eager to read Cake, Sue Hendra’s latest book.

Cake has been invited to his first ever birthday party, but feels he looks plain. He buys a hat with candles on top, on the advice of his friend Fish, and goes to the birthday party, where the hosts have been long awaiting him. The reader has a slight inkling that Cake maybe isn’t prepared for what’s about to happen, and may be awfully relieved when he escapes as the candles are extinguished. There’s a neat sting to the tail though in the final twist – if readers have a vivid imagination, then things could get quite nasty!

The sense of humour prevails throughout, in the plot and the illustrations: from the penguin shop assistant to Cake riding his bicycle, to the absorbing emotions of Cake’s face.

This is a delicious book, warm, witty, and bearing the authors’ joint bold and brilliant styles. If the little testers ask for Cake over and over, and yet they’re not talking about the edible kind, you know you’re onto a winner. Buy yours here.

Great Bunny Bakes by Ellie Snowdon

Watchers of that famous television programme will notice something similar in this Bunny Bake Off book, in which Quentin the wolf enters a competition designed for baking rabbits (no, not rabbit pie, but bunnies who bake). The wolf loves baking, but has to disguise himself as a rabbit to enter.

Luckily for the bunnies, Quentin is much more interested in perfecting each round of baking rather than eating rabbits, and before long has shown off his bread loaf and his wibbly wobbly trifle. But one particular bunny is jealous and aims to sabotage the rest of the competition. Quentin survives this slight, and slipping on a banana skin, and eventually being outed as a wolf, and still emerges the triumphant winner, winning not only the competition but some bunny friends too.

The tone is light and fluffy, the illustrations rich and full of incident, and there’s a nice sprinkling of kindness throughout. Snowdon is adept at adding in as many extras as she can, from honeybees swarming the honey buns to cherries popping from the trifles, all of which add to a general feeling of busyness, mayhem and delight in the baking. This is a very tasty debut. You can buy it here.

 

 

A Child’s Best Friend

It is reasonable to assume that a certain number of children’s books will feature a dog. Not so much a man’s best friend, as a child’s best friend, dogs have been found to be perfect listeners to books, and cheering companions on adventures. My first dog was Timmy from The Famous Five, but since then they’ve cropped up in all sorts of literature. In this, the Year of the Dog, it seems fitting to bring some new books to your attention in which dogs are more than just a sidekick, they are integral to the story.

a different dogA Different Dog by Paul Jennings, illustrated by Geoff Kelly
This is a quietly compelling, and with afterthought, immensely powerful tale of a selectively mute boy and his guilt over the dog he forsook. But with a redemptive ending for both himself and a new equally-traumatised dog he stumbles across, as both discover a renewed zest for life.

Using extreme economy of words, and writing with intensity and simplicity, Jennings showcases how effective literature can be in few words and without flourish. This is an accomplished text, which draws in reluctant readers and gets across a plethora of not just emotions, but moral dilemmas and extraordinary situations.

On a dark day, a nameless boy, poverty-stricken and picked-upon by his peers, aims to complete and win a race up a mountain to win a substantial amount of money for his mother. But when an accident leaves a driver dead, and the driver’s dog alone, the boy finds friendship with the dog, and a solace in the bravery and courage it takes to survive lost on the mountain, and finally, in the denouement, to face up to those who marginalise and bully him.

Jennings’s background as a speech pathologist shines through in his dealing with the boy’s selective mutism – he only speaks when alone. But also Jenning’s experience in writing projects itself strongly through the sophisticated text. The reader sympathises immediately with the boy, there is a direct empathy with him, despite and even because of the incident which rendered him temporarily mute, and because the reader is a party to his deepest thoughts and his conversation with the new dog.

The economy of writing lends itself to the reluctant readership, but more than that it reflects the character, so that the minimalism feels fully justified and necessary.

It’s an intriguing study, in that throughout the challenges facing the boy, and there are many, the reader also feels a slight discomfort – not at the challenges, but about the decisions the boy makes. There is a questioning, a fear of what his mother must be thinking, a moral dilemma at every turn. It comes to the fore in a particularly disturbing scene towards the end of the book, but the consequences bear out what the book is all about – belonging, speaking up for what’s right, finding peace in friendships, and how sometimes the strongest communication is that without words.

There’s a resounding line in the book about relationships: “You’re heavy, not a burden” his mother says to the son, and he repeats this to the new dog, but there is much more to think about here: love, guilt, courage, resilience, persistence, bullying, treatment of animals.

For a reluctant teen audience, yet accessible for 10+ years, this is a story that is muted in tone, quiet but astonishingly powerful. I read a proof copy, but the illustrations so far are deliciously obscure too – wooded areas, dark shadows, heavy lines. They emphasise the point – the woods may be deep and dark, but there’s a path out, and the experience may effect wondrous changes in thought and deeds. You can buy it here.

elise and the second-hand dogElise and the Second-hand Dog by Bjarne Reuter, translated from the Danish by Sian Mackie, illustrated by Kirsten Raagaard
Much lighter fare in this quirky story for middle grade readers, which suggested a sort of European Ramona the Brave. Elise lives in Copenhagen, but her mother is away building bridges in the Amazon, and her father plays the violin outside the local department store. Elise misses her mother terribly and finally persuades her father to buy her a dog (although it has to be second-hand for they don’t have much money). The dog she ends up with is not a cute and fluffy pet, but rotund with bowlegged limbs and a whiffy smell.

However, she soon realises that her dog can talk. Together, then go on a series of adventures, from building their own suspense bridge across the Amazon in her bedroom to hunting vampires in Elise’s grandma’s old mill.

The dog, of course, only makes his talent known to Elise, and he’s as quirky as she, explaining that he’s from Tobermory in Scotland, speaking Danish with a Scottish accent and proving knowledgeable about whiskey.

But the book is more than a sum of its parts – what makes it so special is the community that surrounds Elise and her dog. Each character has something to add to the story, and enhances the warmth that surrounds Elise like a loving hug. The cast is diverse and different, each with their own foibles and quirks, but all with good intentions.

The interest also lies in the surroundings being removed from the familiar – not in that the book is Danish as such, but that Reuter doesn’t hold back from mentioning names of lesser well-known composers, as well as exploring life’s adult complexities – alcohol and its effects, the concept of possibly dangerous strangers walking round the town after dark. Elise is innocent, but far less mollycoddled than some in English children’s literature, and she’s all the better for it.

There’s a sense of humour that pervades the whole, and a certainty that there’s nothing more important than having imagination. The book has oodles of it, and is charming, witty and smart. Just like Elise’s talking dog, it speaks to children everywhere. You can buy it here.

Thinker, My Puppy Poet and Me by Eloise Greenfield, illustrated by Ehsan Abdollahi
This wonderfully illustrated, full colour poetry book is amazingly a first outing for Eloise Greenfield in the UK, despite her having published 47 books for children and having won awards for some of them in her native USA. Thinker, My Puppy Poet and Me is a collection of poems for young children, taking the premise that Thinker, the dog, is a poet, along with his owner, Jace, and together they explore the world around them using free verse.

From the magical illustration on the endpapers, in which Abdollahi portrays Thinker as a carefree happy puppy enveloped by floating flowers, and seemingly following the scent of an exquisite colourful bird, the book explores the wonders and mysteries of the world. The first poem describes Thinker’s arrival in Jace’s house, and his feeling of love and belonging. Before long they are exploring the magic of language, the learning they still have to do (Jace is only seven, after all), and the conundrums of school, all in a gentle cohesive narrative.

The text and illustrations are populated by a truly special group of people, from siblings and neighbours to friends and even a stranger in the park, but there’s a feeling of community that builds throughout. This is a wonderful introduction to poetry, including some haiku, free verse, rap and rhyme, and each poem pulsates with the rhythm of language and life. The poems can be read for pure enjoyment, or to study the shape, repetition, language and rhythm. You can buy your own copy here.

raymondRaymond by Yann and Gwendal Le Bec
A tongue-in-cheek book that toys frantically with doggie word play. Raymond is an ordinary dog until the day he has a big thought about the place of a dog within a family. Before long, he has completely anthropomorphised, and becomes a journalist, or a ‘rover’ing’ reporter at Dogue magazine.

Along with the other dogs in town, he sees things differently on two legs. He enjoys cappuccinos and the cinema; at work he sniffs out deadlines. But a chance encounter with a ball makes him see that things aren’t always that great for humans. It brings a whole new meaning to the phrase, ‘working himself to the bone’, and sets out to explore that a dog’s life is a great life after all.

In bold bright colours, the detailed illustrations provide a great take on modern life, and promote the message that working too hard without seeing the pleasures of the everyday is a bad thing. Children and adults will chuckle at the two-legged life of all these urban dogs, despite the message being less than subtle. The cartoon-digital feel of the book lends itself well to the glamorous lifestyle of a glossy magazine. A fun book to spark debate about having it all, and all-too-fast modern living. Lead your doggy life here.

 

Age Before Beauty?

the twitsIf you’re a regular reader of my blog on children’s books, or even an infrequent one, you’d probably surmise that I read mostly recent children’s fiction, the ‘just published’ category. World Book Day books too lean towards the new and shiny authors, and most of the WHSmith stock is very contemporary (the exceptions being Roald Dahl and some Judy Blume).

However, I don’t just blog about children’s books, but also work with education consultancies and school libraries, parents and carers, suggesting books for lots of different children, and so I always like to include ‘backlist’ and ‘classics’ on the list too. My blog is sometimes a place for publishers and publicists to show off their latest books (although don’t worry, there’s a filter, I only promote books I’ve read and enjoyed or see merit in). But I do worry that older books are being forgotten, or crowded out of the marketplace.

It seems that I’m not alone in this. A recent hashtag appeared on Twitter, called #LostPrimaryBooks, against which teachers and others proclaimed their love for long lost and forgotten titles, which aren’t necessarily classics, but are much loved stories from when they were children. Some of them still have a relevant place in today’s classrooms, homes and libraries. (I will always have immense passion for Lois Duncan and SE Hinton books).

Simon Smith also brought this to attention with his recent blog on book recommendation, in which he worried that we are too focussed on the next new thing. And probably not just in books, but in all walks of life.

Although I’d never push Sweet Valley High on my children (unless they found the series themselves and wanted to read them), I do often include titles in my recommendations that weren’t published in the last five years.

Because, even with my ‘fluent’ readers groups, I’ve noticed that classics, old stories, and even fairy tales aren’t being heard or absorbed. And this is troubling because without a background of fairy stories, folk tales, and even bible stories, passed down, we lose the ability to see ‘intertextuality’, to link and connect across cultures. Most of the children I talk to have never heard of those old Bible stories – Daniel and the Lion’s Den, David and Goliath, etc. Does it matter? Well, when the media reference a battle as being David and Goliath, or the football commentators say it, do our young people understand what they mean? And will these phrases and terms pass from the vernacular?

And more importantly, when different cultures compare folk stories, we often see the same patterns, the same plot variations, the same use of imagination, the same fears and joys. And if these disappear, we lose common ground, we lose the ability to connect over shared explanations and ideas. These cultural folk tales, Bible stories, fairy stories, also give children a sense of their own history, and the ‘classics’ can give children a sense of literary history too.

letters from the lighthouseI was recently leading a book group of fluent readers on evacuee fiction. We discussed many recent examples – Wave Me Goodbye by Jacqueline Wilson, Letters from the Lighthouse by Emma Carroll, The Emergency Zoo by Miriam Halahmy. I also referenced Carrie’s War by Nina Bawden, Goodnight Mister Tom by Michelle Margorian, and When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit by Judith Kerr. All titles kept in the school library, but only one child had read these latter three. But most fascinating was that I discovered the British Government’s plan to evacuate the children was called Operation Pied Piper. That made perfect sense to me – but sadly the group of children hadn’t come across this legend, and so didn’t understand my lightbulb moment.

I hear the ‘Pollyanna’ effect as a phrase used in modern television and film dialogue quite frequently, and yet if one hasn’t heard of the book, it’s hard to know what the phrase means. And I recently made a reference on twitter to ‘Reader, I married him’ about reading Jane Eyre to my daughter, but it’s not a popular choice among today’s teens. True, not everyone will read or like the classics, but we shouldn’t lump them all in the past in a collective ‘boring’ or ‘exam only’ pile. Some reluctant readers could be as enthralled by Gatsby and Catcher in the Rye and The Lord of the Flies as I am – they’re pretty short too!

For April Fools’ Day I decided to reference The Twits and the pranks they played upon each other. I started my session by making the assumption that the group of Year 1-4 would have heard the story before. I was vastly wrong. Most of them hadn’t. (This particular group of children came from fairly affluent backgrounds and most had box sets of Walliams on their shelves, so it was surprising to me that they hadn’t been read to, or read themselves, the classic Roald Dahl books).

I’m not proposing we revisit the times of the Dahl Effect (in which primary school teachers only used well-worn texts as they had no knowledge of contemporary fiction), and yet perhaps it’s time to revisit some of the backlist of children’s books alongside the contemporary. Studying Journey to the River Sea published in 2001 with The Explorer published in 2017 is great for investigating intertextuality. I read What Lexie Did by Emma Shevah last week (just published) – a brilliant book about knowing when to lie and when to tell the truth, which could be compared to On the Way Home by Jill Murphy, Liar and Spy by Rebecca Stead, the classic folk tale The Boy Who Cried Wolf, or Cautionary Tales for children by Hilarie Belloc.

When publishers re-issue old favourites such as 101 Dalmations with new illustrations – they present us with the perfect opportunity to revisit these texts.

tiger who came to teaMany older titles stand the test of time wonderfully. Classic picture books such as The Tiger Who Came to Tea by Judith Kerr has remained in the top 5,000 books sold every year since records began in 1998.

And not only do some of these titles stand the test of time, and warrant reading by today’s sometimes attention-zapped youngsters, but some of them haven’t been much bettered in the message they are trying to convey. Some Dogs Do by Jez Alborough, published 2003, is one of my favourite picture books for impressing upon the reader the idea of believing in your dreams and not being bullied out of them. The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle, published 1969, is still a brilliant introduction to the lifecycle of a butterfly. Corduroy by Don Freeman, published 1968, still stands the test of time as a great picture book about friendship, belonging and materialism.

I know we look to modern books for certain representation that may not have been there in the past, but for feisty girls smashing the patriarchy, I always harp back to Mary in The Secret Garden – leading the way in fighting the adversity of her situation (parents dead, expectations demanded of her because of her gender) and yet railing against all expectations and freeing Colin from his misery. How about Jane Eyre, or the girls in The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, who foil the baddies with wit and guile? Becky Sharp from Vanity Fair? The Fossil Sisters from Ballet Shoes? I could go on and on. I never felt misrepresented as a determined girl, and also saw the changing face of gender expectations within historical contexts.

In terms of diversity, modern books still aren’t cracking it yet, although things are starting to change – there still aren’t enough BAME protagonists, or Jewish characters. This minority group seem to feature in WW2 books occasionally, fighting back against the Nazis, but hardly ever in other time frames.

My point is that we need to make sure children are excited about new books – there’s little better than hearing a child ask if the next book in the series is out yet – but also we want to encourage them to read the strong backlist too. It’s far easier to get that instant gratification if the whole series has already been written. The only disappointment they’ll feel is the answer they get when they ask their librarian to book Enid Blyton for an author visit…