picturebooks

Impossible Inventions: Ideas That Shouldn’t Work by Matgorzata Mycielska, Aleksandra and Daniel Mizielinski

One of my favourite Homer Simpson lines is: “Kids, you tried your best and you failed miserably. The lesson is, never try.”

Impossible Inventions is a fabulous non-fiction book that explores inventions which are sometimes crazy, sometimes inspired and sometimes just plain weird, but what they have in common is that they all failed. The point is that they are all somewhere on the path to real discovery and invention, even if the road is rather long and winding. And some of the historical inventions featured were thought up by historical figures (Da Vinci, Tesla) who we know and recognise for inventions that did work.

The book features such weird and wacky inventions as a concentration helmet, a transport cloud, a steam horse and a bubble messenger. Each invention is afforded a double page, with full-colour illustrations and accompanying text and captions, and then a second double page with a large cartoon exploring the practicality of the invention, with cartoon bubble speech. It’s both funny and informative.

The illustrations complement the wackiness of the ideas, not only in their cartoon-like style but in the bold block colours and strong outlines, which feel both fresh and creative, and are drawn with a unique quirkiness that we’ve come to expect from Aleksandra and Daniel Mizielinski of Maps fame.

The book introduces the concept of invention and innovation, describing that all inventions begin with a dream or a need, and each invention takes imagination, commitment and courage. Mycielska talks about the point of patents too, and sets out the limitlessness of possibility. This book points to the power of the imagination, and the understanding that what may seem challenging or even downright peculiar at one time, may turn out to be useful and necessary – sometimes many years later.

The inventions are shown in a random order – in actual fact the contents are at the back of the book, and the placement of each invention plays to the randomness of ideas. Imagination doesn’t necessarily work in a linear fashion.

This is a wonderfully fascinating and humorous book, which teaches a great lesson in engineering and science – that not everybody will succeed every time, but each step is part of the learning process. And if you don’t try, you definitely won’t succeed. You can buy it here.

Christmas Books Roundup 2017

““Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents,” grumbled Jo” (Little Women), but for me, presents means books. So, if you’re looking to treat your children to some rectangular shapes in their stockings and under the tree, here are my highlights…

Picture Books


Oliver Elephant by Lou Peacock and Helen Stephens (Nosy Crow)
My top pick for the season is definitely this heartwarming Christmassy through-and-through tale about a Christmas present shopping trip, in which mummy has a long list, a pram to manoeuvre, her children Noah and Evie-May, and Noah’s toy elephant. With sparkling rhythmic rhyming, and huge attention to detail in the department store colourwash illustrations, this will make every reader feel that magical Christmas time aura. There’s much to love in the familiar tale of a temporarily lost toy in a large store, but Peacock and Stephens manage to inject their own personality onto the book, with lots of love, expression and minute detail. I love the mittens on strings, the busyness of the store, the flushed faces of the customers, the diversity of the cast, and the wonderful emotion on the face of the mother (tired yet happy), and Noah (small in a world of big things). His playfulness with the elephant, and the frustrated sympathy of his mother is pitch perfect. And of course, there’s a happy Christmas ending. You can buy it here.


The Princess and the Christmas Rescue by Caryl Hart and Sarah Warburton (Nosy Crow)
This hilarious picture book for Christmas manages to combine fairy tale allusions (it is about a princess after all), feminism (girl engineers), and an ironic Amazon-like present-picking machine all in a neat sing-song rhyme. But mainly, this is an adorable rhyming picture book about finding friends. Princess Eliza loves to make things, but her parents are worried at her lack of friends. When the Christmas elves run into trouble in the busy lead-up to Christmas, Eliza steps in to help, and finds that as well as being a super duper inventor, there’s fun in friendship too. Exquisite illustrations in bright colours that mix the essence of Christmas (ribbons, elves, cosy armchairs by the fire) with ‘Wallace and Gromit’ type inventions. Christmas bliss. You can buy it here.


All I Want for Christmas by Rachel Bright (Orchard Books)
Rachel Bright is superb at wrapping moral lessons in her books, and this Christmas treat is no different. It’s not an illustrated version of Mariah Carey’s Christmas hit, but it does carry the same message – as well as cookies and trees, and presents and roast dinners, what this Big Penguin really wants is love. Yes, this is about penguins, not humans. Shown first in a snowglobe on a mantelpiece, the story opens up to explore the penguins’ world in the lead up to Christmas. Cute illustrations, and a fabulous spread in the middle that shows miniature vignettes of Big Penguin and Little Penguin busy doing the ‘hundred things’ to get ready, this is an adorable read. You can purchase it here.


Last Stop on the Reindeer Express by Maudie Powell-Tuck and Karl James Mountford (Little Tiger Press)
The next title also features a family with a missing adult, but here they are human, and there is a more pronounced emphasis on families who can’t be together at Christmas time. Mia’s dad can’t come home for Christmas, but luckily for her, she stumbles across a magical postbox with a door to The Reindeer Express, which manages to convey her to her father for a Christmas hug, and still be back with her mother for Christmas.

Karl James Mountford’s illustrations feel globally Christmassy, with muted earthy tones, in particular a profusion of rusty red, as he conveys a timelessness to the images – from the dress of the people, which feels old-fashioned, to the takeaway cups of mulled wine, which feel up-to-the-minute. With maps and explorers’ articles, and a globe-trotting reindeer, the book feels as if it’s digging into a magical time of exploration and discovery, as well as showcasing a homely setting with snow outside the window. Our heroine wears glasses and is an eager and curious child. But what sets this book apart is its production. With thick pages, peek-throughs and cut-outs, and the most tactile cut-away cover, this truly feels like a gift. Romantic and yet curiously real. You can purchase it here.


A Christmas Carol: Search and Find by Louise Pigott and Studio Press
Another beautifully produced book, with silver foil on the cover, this classic Christmas story is retold with search and find scenes – both the characters and setting are illustrated at the outset, with a brief summary of author and text, and then the story is told through double page illustration scenes, alongside an illustration key, which asks the reader to find certain people and objects (such as five red robins, a wistful scrooge, and the ghost of Christmas yet to come).

Through minimal text but large illustrations, both the characters and their narratives are revealed. It’s clever, and wonderfully appealing, in that it’s a book that could be shared, and certainly pored over, as each scene is so wonderfully detailed. Answers, are of course, at the back. You can purchase it here.

Chapter Books:
Three chapter books for you, each from an established series, but this time with their ‘Christmas theme’ stamped all over the cover and narrative. My testers (little kiddies) adore all three series, and couldn’t wait to read them – so they won’t be under my tree!


Polly and the Puffin: The Happy Christmas by Jenny Colgan, illustrated by Thomas Docherty (Hachette)
I have the distinct feeling that the children and I like this book for very different reasons, but that’s the joyous element of this book, which is written to be shared by being read aloud (with references to hugs, and an authorial voice).

Polly and Neil (her real puffin) are all ready for Christmas, but it’s only November, and such a long time to wait. And then things start to go wrong. Will it ever be Christmas? Will the puffling hatch? Will Wrong Puffin find his way home? There is a huge infusion of wit and personality here – from Polly’s moods, and her quirks (from calling the toy puffin Wrong Puffin, to her grumpiness with her real puffin, Neil) to the illustrator’s humour (see the contented yet oblivious cat lying on the sofa, the wine bottle from Christmas Eve and bleary parents at Christmas Day morning). The narrative voice is warm and comforting, just right for Christmas Eve. There are loads of extras at the back too – recipes, activities and jokes. Buy it here.


Shifty McGifty and Slippery Sam: Jingle Bells by Tracey Corderoy and Steven Lenton (Nosy Crow)
This pair of cake-baking, crime-solving dogs are never far from mischief, and the delight of these little books is that they each contain three stories in one book – good for short attention spans and first readers. Only the first story is Christmas-themed, with the delightful Santa Paws, but the other two tales are equally strong and eventful: Sea-Monster Ahoy! and Lucky Cat. With plentiful illustrations in two-tone colour, lots of lively language, and fast plots, these are lovely little bursts of entertainment. You can purchase it here.


There’s a Dragon in My Stocking by Tom Nicoll, illustrated by Sarah Horne (Stripes)
Lastly, and for slightly older readers, this Christmassy addition to the fabulous ‘There’s a Dragon in my Dinner!’ series continues the adventures of Eric, who was first introduced when he discovered a mini dragon (Pan) in his takeaway dinner. In this funny sequel, Pan’s parents arrive down the chimney. Looking after one dragon and stopping fires was bad enough, but now Eric has three on his hands, and his parents are entertaining on Christmas day. When disaster hits their lunch plans, it might just be that three little dragons come in useful. As well as being huge fun, Nicoll captures the family personalities beautifully, especially annoying Toby from next door, and his Mum (complete with mobile phone!). You can buy it here.

Happy Christmas shopping.

Chris Wormell’s Studio Tour


Chris Wormell is a celebrated children’s author and illustrator, a self-taught print-maker of considerable talent, and also happened to have opened our primary school library. From the cover of award-winning H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald and Pullman’s La Belle Sauvage, to his own picture books of Two Frogs and George and the Dragon, Wormell consistently produces striking illustrations to match the most wonderful narratives. His most recent book, Dinosaurium, with text from Lily Murray, is a wonderful addition to the Welcome to the Museum series, and an excellent tome for dinosaur enthusiasts. Here, Chris opens up his studio for you to see where and how he works:

This is where I do my wood engraving and lino cutting. I use the magnifying glass when engraving in fine detail.


Here’s a close up view of a block and some engraving tools.

This is where I do much of my drawing. The sketch is for the Marine Reptiles image. Underneath it is a light box – very useful for tracing.

Computers and drawing tablet. I draw on the tablet much as one would on a piece of paper. Behind the computers you can see some engraved blocks on the shelves.

Here’s a closer view of them. This is just a tiny fraction of all the blocks around the house.

This is my printing press – an Albion press, made in 1846. It’s not actually in the studio but downstairs. There are a few blocks in here too. The large tube in the middle there has a roll of Japanese paper in it, but originally contained a five metre roll of lino.

Beside the press are inks and rollers (the crown engraving was for a school crest).

With huge thanks to Chris Wormell for the fascinating tour of his studio. You can buy a copy of Dinosaurium here.

My Autumn Picture Book Round Up 2017

It has been so hard to narrow down this list of picture book choices – there have been so many delightful books landing on MinervaReads’s desk this autumn. But here are my absolute favourites this quarter:

Oi Cat by Kes Gray and Jim Field
You might have thought by now, after Oi Frog and Oi Dog, that this series would have become a little jaded. Judging by the colour of this new one though, you’d be completely wrong. Fresh as ever, bright and vibrant, the characters keep developing and the rhymes keep evolving. It’s all about changing the rules – depending on who’s in charge – the Dog, the Frog or the Cat. Giggly it certainly is, bright and cartoon-like, with masses of personality. There are even rhymes with alpacas, flamingos and lemurs, and a vibrant pink flip up page at the end. A book at which you must take a look. It must be catching…You can buy yours here.

Nothing Rhymes with Orange by Adam Rex
And following swiftly on from rhyming animals, here be rhyming fruit. It’s long been a statement of fact that nothing rhymes with orange, but Adam Rex explores how that might make Orange feel. If grapes can wear capes and hairy pears are tied to chairs, the fruits get a little carried away and start to sing a rhyming song – except they leave out Orange. Yes, this book is as zany as it sounds. With images of real fruit stuck in a kind of weird illustrated landscape with drawn on expressions and text that looks as if it has been written with a sharpie pen, and mentions of Nietzsche, it’s a strange kind of picture book. Except that somehow it works – it certainly teaches about exotic fruits, but it also explores feeling left out and how to include someone. A bizarre and yet rather striking addition. Rhyme yourself silly here.

The Squirrels Who Squabbled by Rachel Bright and Jim Field
Another moral lesson to be learned in this picture book, with squirrels on the front who would fit in well in Oi Cat, (the illustrator Jim Field has been busy). This book about competitiveness, sharing and friendship brims forth with autumnal charm in its illustrations, and with wit in Bright’s brilliantly evocative and poetic text. It also rhymes – one squirrel is called Cyril, for example, but the rhyming here is less forced and provocative than the above picture books. The descriptions are plenty: the sky rages red, the forest towers, and the frosting of winter glitters ahead. The text tells the tale of the squirrel who saved nothing for winter and the squirrel who has an abundance. When they fight over securing a last pine cone, there is immense danger in the quest. The competitive squabbling ends in much mirth and an acceptance of sharing with friends. Great momentum, phenomenal nature landscapes – this is an autumn treat I want to share with everyone. Buy your copy here.

The Wolf, the Duck and the Mouse by Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen
More animal companionship, and another classic author/illustrator pairing in this tale about a duck and a mouse who get swallowed by a wolf, and decide to live in his belly. We’re back to the slightly zany here, with influences including Jonah (stuck in a whale’s stomach) but also Aesop, in animal tales that impart morals.

Turning pre-conceived ideas on their head, it turns out it’s not so bad for the mouse to be swallowed by a wolf – after all it’s rather comfy inside, and it removes the fear of being hunted. Especially when there’s a companion already within (the duck), who explains that “I may have been swallowed, but I have no intention of being eaten.” There are plenty of laughs – the stomach seems fairly well equipped; there’s even a painting on the wall, and to complement the rather old-fashioned tone of the interior – candlesticks, grapes, red wine – the language is that of old fairy-tales set in woods – ‘flagon of wine, hunk of cheese, beeswax candles’. Things turn a little strange when the animals party with a record-player (children might wonder what this is), but then strange is expected with this author/illustrator pairing. Muted grey and brown colours lend a warmth and an old-fashioned vibe. There’s a nod to being flexible and adaptable in this tale, and a hint of karma when the hunter becomes the hunted. Explore the narrative here.

Hic! By Anushka Ravishankar and Christiane Pieper
Something slightly more human in this well-crafted book about an issue that can flummox a child, but about which I’ve never seen another picture book: what to do when you have the hiccups. The simple premise of this book is the extraordinary advice given to a child as to how to rid themselves of the hiccups. The girl tries everything from the sublime to the ridiculous, and the more ridiculous. With each ‘cure’ attempted, the next hiccup is even more disastrous (as I suppose it would be if you licked mustard off your nose!). The illustrations are a delight, kept to yellow, blue and black, it lends a distinct look to the book, and the expressions of the children are energetic, humorous and endearing. Cleverly, each remedy rhymes with hic, but alas, there is no solution. Try not to catch hiccups here.

Lines by Suzy Lee
A wordless picture book that starts with a pencil line and evolves into a skater dancing her way across the ice white page. She’s small against the size of the page, but wonderfully fluent in her movements. She feels real, she seems to move. Her red cap and mittens stand out against the white, but the reader will be most entranced by the movement of her legs – the few simple pencil strokes that indicate her direction of travel, her spins and loops, her swirls and twirls. The reader will marvel at the power of the pencil. But when she falls and tumbles, it turns out that she has been nothing but an artist’s impression and the paper is crumpled.

The ending is happy. Once unfolded, the paper once again becomes an ice rink, although cleverly, not so smooth anymore, and our skater is joined by others. No words are needed to explore the narrative here: the freedom of our skater, the joyfulness of the ice rink, and the stretch of the imagination. Stunning. You can find it here.

 

Malala’s First Picture Book

Some say that there is nothing you can’t put into a children’s book – everything is game, from the darkest nightmares to the scariest truths: children will take from the text and pictures at their own level of understanding; most will pass over their heads, and the rest will be absorbed. So, if Malala were to present her early story as a picture book, what would she include?

Malala’s Magic Pencil is an autobiographical tale of her early life, and although it obscurely touches on her shooting, and the negative impact of those who would withhold human rights, this is ultimately a coming-of-age tale that turns negative experiences into enormous hope for the future; a story of magic and positivity. Malala has an understanding of how to reach people through words, and this is what she does here, inspiring and enthralling young readers and future leaders.

The book begins by asking the reader if they believe in magic. Malala is pictured with large curious eyes, and importantly, paper and pen in hand, school rucksack on her back. Malala harks back to her favourite television programme about a boy with a magic pencil, a hero who protected people with his supernatural pen powers. The book then documents simply and effectively the hardships of Malala’s early life, the poverty of her neighbours, her love for her family, and yet also the restrictions on girls’ educations and freedoms in her country.

Before long, the war and ‘powerful and dangerous men’ intrude upon Malala’s life, stopping her from attending school, and so the book delves into Malala’s struggle to get her voice heard – using illustrations of endless papers and reading, computers and TV, before blackness falls on the next page. There is no blatant description of what Malala suffered, but she is seen wearing a hospital gown and bracelet, and simply:

“My voice became so powerful that dangerous men tried to silence me.”

From then, the book’s illustrations burst into light again with pastel shades of dress, banners and posters, people and delegates. Malala finds magic, not in a supernatural pencil, but in the power of her words.

The message is not just one of hope – but of working hard and persevering. The watercolour illustrations are as simple and effective as the text, and the subtle gold that filters through the book lends it that positivity and light – the wonder of the world. This is a marvellous introduction to not only Malala’s story, but also human rights, equality and the power of communication.

Below, I am lucky enough to be able to feature some questions and answers with Malala about her picture book.

You have told your story in a memoir for adults and a book for young readers. Why was it important for you to share your story with an even younger audience in a picture book?

I have met many young children who want to know about what happened in my life and why I believe in education for all, so it was important for me to share my story with them. For this age, a picture book felt like the best way – to use pictures and to simplify the events in a way that younger kids can understand. There are scary parts to my story, or details that are complicated to explain, but I wanted to be able to share it with a younger audience as best as I could.

What was different about the process of creating a picture book?

With other books, it was more stressful – so many details to remember and to make sure were accurate and we were always checking dates, and it was a very intense process that involved a lot of work. With the picture book, it was also a lot of work – choosing the artists, the color of the magic, and the color on the cover, and deciding how we should express everything in pictures and if the art felt accurate, down to the cracks in the wall of our home (I had to ask them to add more cracks) – small things that mattered a lot.  And then when the text was paired with the art, we made a lot of small changes that made a big difference. I am proud of the memoirs, too, but to be honest, I enjoyed this process more.


What was it like seeing your illustrators, Kerasco
ët, bring your memories to life?

As I was turning pages, it reminded me of those joyful moments of my life in Swat. Seeing all that in these pictures made me happy, but it also made me miss that life. I had this beautiful past, but I had difficult times as well, and that time is gone now. I was impressed by how the illustrators managed to do everything so accurately and how well the images represent Swat Valley and my school life.

Seeing my story in pictures was nice – it was like seeing my story in a different way.

How did you approach the more serious issues like terrorism, poverty and violence when retelling your story for a younger audience?

I tried to explain it in simple terms and not go into too much detail. Some of my story in reality is horrible and scary, so both the artists and I tried to convey that bad things were happening – that happy moments had turned to bad moments and fear was growing. But the most important thing is that girls couldn’t go to school and I spoke out against this. The attempt on my life was an attempt to silence me, so that’s what we focused on for this version of my story, rather than include anything about the attack itself.

The book touches on the magic and power of our words and actions to create positive changes in the world. What advice do you have for young readers who want to change something in their lives or their community, but arent sure where to start?

The first thing is for young readers to believe in themselves and their ideas. They should never doubt themselves if they are fighting injustice. After that, there’s no limit in this world – whether you want to raise awareness by writing or making a video or talking to your parents. Or if you want to raise money for a cause or join a group or start a group. Sometimes these things look small to us – how will one small action bring change in this big world? – but if we do it together it will multiply. Back in Swat, I didn’t know if my voice would bring any change. But I spoke up anyway. Your voice is powerful and you can raise it in different ways.

What message do you hope children take away from Malala’s Magic Pencil?

I hope that they find their magic pencil. My magic pencil was my voice. I myself am curious what they will learn from this book and I hope they’ll reach out and tell me. I love getting letters from young people.

What is your favourite childrens book?

In our school in Swat, children were limited to their school textbooks and didn’t read extra books. I was considered a big reader because I read 8 or 9 books outside of school. That all changed when I got to the UK. But some of my favorite books that I read growing up were Parvana’s Journey by Deborah Ellis, which is part of a series; and Meena: Heroine of Afghanistan by Melody Ermachild Chavis. It’s not a children’s book, but as a child, I also enjoyed A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking – I loved reading about science.

Could you tell us about your favourite teacher when you were growing up?

Miss Ulfat was my teacher from an early age. I grew up with her. She inspired me to be good and respectful and to obey my parents and listen to my teachers. She inspired me to be a good student, work hard, and study. She gave me advice and would encourage me to participate in different activities.  She always encouraged me to be better and to do better.

What’s next for Malala?

At Malala Fund, we will continue the work we’ve been doing.  And I will continue to travel and speak on behalf of girls’ education.

I’m also excited for this new phase of life at university, and quite nervous, as it will be the first time I’m not living with my family. So many emotions are going through my mind and so many questions – what is my life going to be like? I am eager to find out.

With thanks to Penguin for letting me host this interview. You can buy your own copy of the book here

Dinosaurs

One non-fiction area in the children’s bookshop or library that’s always teeming with books is the one labelled ‘dinosaurs’. With frequent new discoveries, it’s a fascinating time for anyone interested in the topic. Publishers are increasingly inventing new ways to look at dinosaurs, and these four books couldn’t be more different in their approach and target audience:


Nibbles: The Dinosaur Guide by Emma Yarlett
Nibbles first came to our attention last year, subversively nibbling through the pages of fairy tales, and introducing children to picture books through play and investigation. Now this cute monster is back in a book that attempts to introduce some non-fiction about dinosaurs, in an accessible and friendly, and again, slightly subversive way, as Nibbles tries again to eat his way through the book. (There are numerous cut-outs to see through, and flaps to lift). But this time, Nibbles is not contending with Goldilocks, but with a charging triceratops and a farting diplodocus. Combining story (Nibbles) with facts (dinosaurs), Yarlett introduces dinosaurs for the very young, but never talks down to them.

The book is colourful and chatty, and identifies each species in a friendly way – for example, triceratops was ‘roughly the length of a double decker bus’. Although there are more difficult words for a young reader, such as herbivore, they are only included if important, and mostly Yarlett allows the reader to relate to her text with sentences such as ‘Scientists say they had big bums and large stompy feet’. The whole book is a chase to find Nibbles, all the while exploring different species, and the book ends with a rather delightful joke about comets.

Illustrations are cute rather than scientific, but Yarlett manages to introduce the use of annotations and captions in a clever combination of non-fiction and playfulness. Another winner. Highly recommended. You can purchase it here.


Dinosaurium: Welcome to the Museum by Lily Murray and Chris Wormell
A long-awaited tome, and one of the best suited to the Welcome to the Museum series, this is an exquisite title for anyone interested in dinosaurs. The scientifically-rendered illustrations are actually digital engravings in full colour, although the colour is muted so that it doesn’t feel artificial.

In fact, the whole book has a scientific approach, although it is always clear, concise and accessible. Each species is examined in terms of how they ate, moved, lived and fought, and the book also explores the great span of time in which dinosaurs lived – and how they evolved and changed.

As with other books in the series, each species is given a full page illustration, or a horizontal half spread, with detailed accompanying text with a serious, intense amount of detail and full Latin names. Pronunciation may be a challenge, but the amount of knowledge imparted here is awesome.

Particularly inspiring is the cladogram (dinosaur family tree), and the fascinating chapter at the end on non-dinosaurs (including mammals, reptiles, extinction and survivors).

This is one of the most comprehensive and enticing books on dinosaurs produced recently, and seeing as we are in a golden age of dinosaur discovery and understanding, this is an apt and beautiful addition to the dinosaur canon. You can purchase it here.


Make and Move Mega: Dinosaurs by Sato Hisao
Not so much a book, as a paper making activitity, this pack contains five dinosaur models, flat-packed, to press out, slot together and play. There are levers included so that each dinosaur can move and ‘roar’ when the levers are pulled. T-Rex, triceratops, apatosaurus, stegosaurus and pterandon are included, and no scissors or glue are needed.

However, as I embarked on the venture with a willing ten year old, we found that brains are most certainly needed. This is not a ‘cute’ activity for a young child, but a technically quite difficult paper folding and slotting experiment. The lengthy instructions are laid out in graphics without text, much like an Ikea piece of furniture, and there is just a simple paragraph at the beginning introducing each species.

The good news is that we did succeed. A model was made, complete with levers, although I’m not sure ours was exactly as the toy engineer author intended.

A lengthy task, but the paper is sturdy enough that none was torn during the making, and a satisfying conclusion was reached! An excellent rainy day activity for an older dinosaur enthusiast.


The World of Supersaurs: Raptors in Paradise by Jay Jay Burridge
And lastly, this Jurassic Park novel that sets out to describe a world in which dinosaurs never died out, and humans live side by side with the creatures. From the cover, the reader can already see that living together may not always be harmonious, and there’s plenty of adventure within.

Bea Kingsley’s explorer parents went missing eleven years prior, when Bea was just a baby, and now she is venturing with her grandparents to the Indonesian islands of Aru, ostensibly on holiday, but it’s also the last place her parents were seen. The islands are also home to the elusive Raptors of Paradise, and before long there is trouble.

The book reads like an old-fashioned adventure, and the frequent black and white illustrations enhance this idea (in fact I sometimes felt as if they had been inspired by Westworld or Indiana Jones). The book is set in a fictional 1932 and belongs to a time in which people voyaged by sea, there were trading companies, and girls were expected to behave in a certain way.

This is one of many enjoyable subversive facets to the dinosaur story – in that the protagonist is female, and the author shows her grandparents also adventuring, rather than being discarded at the outset. The text in places is a little clunky, but most readers will happily skip through the story, as the action comes fast, and readers will be eager to use the app that accompanies the text to explore the many illustrations.

The Supersaurs app (crucially available on both android and apple) uses augmented reality with a camera to bring the illustrations to life – they literally ‘pop up’ from the page, and are easy to use and hugely effective (as well as being enormous fun). There’s also an option to ‘play’ with the book too, using the app to seek features in the book. It’s clever and engaging.

The book contains a heavy appendix with dinosaur descriptions.The Supersaurs brand neatly brings old and new together, and is worth noting for super dinosaur enthusiasts. First in a series. You can purchase it here.

 

Sisters Working Together

A deliciously dark fairy tale, Hortense and the Shadow by Natalia and Lauren O’Hara tells the story of a small girl who is afraid of her shadow, and plots to get rid of it. With delightfully descriptive phrases such as ‘wolfish woods,’ combined with the onion turrets of Russian architecture, the book has a distinctive style. Throughout, the author and illustrator manage to give a warmth to the snowy landscapes with the innocence of dotted pastel illustrations, and a subtle simplicity within the text. 

The menace in the tall trees matches the menace Hortense sees in the stretch of her shadow, but in the end her happy ending comes when she sees that the shadowy figures in the background can be more frightening than her own shadow. Without her shadow, she is smaller. With it, despite its darkness, she grows in stature and confidence. With an allusion to Peter Pan via a sash window guillotine, and the hints of fairy tale, this is a picture book that comes from the literary canon that preceded it. 

Author Natalia and illustrator Lauren are sisters. They were born in the North of England to an English father and an Eastern European mother, and now live in London. MinervaReads asked Natalia and Lauren to discuss working together, where their ideas come from, and writing alternative modern fairy tales. The sisters, being sisters, interviewed each other. This is their conversation.

Natalia: In a way, Hortense and the Shadow was your pick, because I came to you with six or seven story ideas and asked which you liked best. What attracted you to the story?

Lauren: It felt by far the most personal of the stories you’d come up with, and also the weirdest and least commercial. Those are qualities we both seem to be attracted to. It also seemed like it didn’t have a bat’s chance of getting published – I remember us saying we’d cut our teeth on this one, and do something commercial later. Actually it was kind of liberating, feeling like we could just play and learn because nobody would ever want to publish this book.

Natalia: It surprised me when you said just now that Hortense and the Shadow was a personal idea. What do you mean?

Lauren: I don’t know if I can put it into words but there’s something about that story that always spoke to me on a personal level. It had a message about self-acceptance I loved. Remember, that was the time when I was coming out of that dark period in my life, and working hard to accept myself and my flaws. And both of us struggled with low self-esteem when we were children. I think we were just lucky that we’re not the only ones who’ve had experiences like those, so it felt personal to some other people too.

Natalia: We talked about Hortense being a kind of modern incarnation of the fairytale princess and about gender quite a bit when we were making this book. What did that mean to you?

Lauren: Well if you remember, when we very first started working on the book there was a moment where you considered making the hero a little boy. But I remember us both feeling that wasn’t the right solution at all. Because this story has a message about accepting your darkness and holding onto your imperfections. I think of course that’s important for everybody, but with the world being how it is, it’s a crucial message to give to little girls.

Natalia: Who are your favourite illustrators of fairytales, and why?

Lauren: I think the first illustrated fairytale I fell in love with was Errol Le Cain’s The Snow Queen. His illustrations for that book are just so evocative and magical. The beautiful snowy landscapes and talking animals and flower-filled gardens… I remember copying out some of the illustrations when we were little, and I feel like they worked their way into my head and found their way out again when I was illustrating Hortense and the Shadow. As you know I also love Jiri Trnka, Lisbeth Zwerger, Arthur Rackham, Kay Nielsen…

OK my turn! Were you ever surprised by how I interpreted your writing?

Natalia: Not really. When you showed me your first drawings the feeling was more like – “Oh there it is!”. You were developing a new style because you were illustrating for the first time, but at the same time what delighted me was how you were channeling the books and illustrators we loved as children – Jiri Trnka, Errol Le Cain, Mirko Hanak. Probably because of that your illustrations felt familiar to me.

Lauren: Do you think our Eastern European background influences the kind of stories we tell?

Natalia: How could it not really? There are subtle ways it influences us, like the mood of melancholy and nostalgia that comes from being born into a family like ours, where every generation until ours, people had to go into exile to escape horrible political events. Then there are more obvious ways, like the fact your illustrations look a lot like the hand-me-down mid-century Soviet books we had at home. Or the fact I love to write strong female protagonists, which is quite common in Slavic fairy tales where the princess often rescues the prince. So yeah, I think it’s everywhere, just like our English heritage is everywhere.

Lauren: Why do you like writing fairy tales?

Natalia: Fairy tales often seem simple and sweet, but underneath they’re full of complicated emotions and ideas that can take many readings to uncover. If it’s a fairy tale, people have an expectation that all that depth is in there and they don’t mind digging for it. Fairy tales grow up with you; they give you darkness and complexity when you’re ready for them. That’s why I love fairy tales, and why I believe they’re full of magic.

Photo credit: Charlotte Knee Photography. You can buy a copy of the book here

Hide and Seek by Anthony Browne

Antony Browne is a long-time stalwart of the children’s illustration scene, so it’s always a pleasure to embrace a new book of his. Hide and Seek bears all the attributes for which Browne is so acclaimed – seeing the dark side of ordinary, playing with perspective and the seen and unseen, exploring the liminal between light and dark. So it’s most fitting that the book deals with the childhood game of Hide and Seek.

Siblings Cy and Poppy have lost their dog in the woods. To distract them from their sadness, they start to play a game of hide and seek with each other. Poppy counts to ten while Cy hides. The reader sees them both – Poppy seeking and Cy hiding. By the end, the dog is found, the game finishes and comfort is restored.

But there’s so much more to this picture book than the description implies. It’s all about the seeking and what’s hidden.

There is something playful already in choosing such an ordinary staple childhood game, which has a lengthy history, and Browne lets the shadows in, allowing room for the dark side of this familiar game. One only has to look at historical depictions of the game in paintings to see that the very idea of hiding and seeking can be played with itself. Tchelitchew’s painting from 1942 displays an enormous amount of ambiguity in the hiding among the trees, likewise Meyerheim’s famous hide and seek game also takes place in a forest, with a child summoning the idea of fairy tales in the woods, as she hides behind a red shawl next to her picnic basket. There is menace in the entire concept.

 

The reason so many depictions of Hide and Seek games are set within woodlands is why Browne has chosen the route himself. Of course there’s a nostalgia for childhoods spent playing in wooded areas, but there’s also the startling effect of light and shade to be found among trees – what light seeps through the canopy and what doesn’t, and so leading on from that the feeling of menace that accompanies it. There’s a fear playing hide and seek in the woods – the fear of not finding whom you are seeking, or of not being found yourself. And the limitless space. A fear that just doesn’t exist inside a house (see Tissot’s 1877 painting Hide and Seek).

Browne’s brilliant picture book plays on these menacing fears. Strange shadows leap up behind the children. In places, the trees appear elongated and towering to further highlight Poppy’s fear. And Browne uses light deliciously to evoke menace at times – throwing shadows of logs across faces or illustrating the depth of the woods stretching out into darkness, but yet also showing safety and warmth with his vibrant tones of yellow when Cy is found, and green when the children return home. This last page holds so much – the light emanating from the caravan in the middle – with the implications of safe adulthood held in the large wellington boots by the door, the friendliness of the plants and flowers, the comfort of the tea cup on the table. Furthermore, it brings together the urban and rural with the towerblock peeking through the trees at the rear.

Throughout the book, Browne not only invokes the darkness that can lie in everyday life, but also provides elements of fun for the young reader – there is an assortment of items (listed at the back of the book) to find among the pages, items that slide out from the shadows and bend reality – whether it is a tap hidden among the branches, the shape of a giraffe among the trees, wood knots and knarls that look like common objects.

This tips the illustrations into surrealism territory, something for which Browne is famous, but it also provokes the question as to what each individual sees. When you read it with different children, they all spot different things at different times, and often, things that you certainly didn’t see first time round. In this way it’s all about ambiguity and perspective – the act of looking and the patterns within the world.

It’s also the perfect book for autumn – the lush carpet of red, brown and yellow leaves on the forest floor almost emit the crunch underfoot. You can play your own game of hide and seek here.

 

Halloween Round Up

Writers and publishers love cultural events upon which they can hook a theme – be it glowing Christmas scenes or the approach of a new season – windy autumns, growth in spring. Halloween seems to intensify every year in the UK – a very large percentage of the autumn books I received had a ‘spooky or witchy element’ to them, and I don’t mean that the pages turned by themselves (although that would be useful). So, to help you through the ghosts and ghoulies, here are my spooky and also witchy-themed picks:


Witch for a Week by Kaye Umansky, illustrated by Ashley King
Not unlike Sylvia Bishop’s stories, also illustrated by Ashley King, this latest from top children’s author Kaye Umansky is an absolutely charming story, which is ideal for newly independent readers. Elsie is recruited to house-sit for local witch Magenta Sharp for a week, and although promised a quiet easy week, has to contend with a host of quirky eccentric neighbours, a tower with personality, and a grumpy talking raven. Each character is well-defined, and Elsie herself is beautifully drawn as unflappable, book-loving, and kind.

The book contains some lovely touches, including hilarious customer service rules (Elsie has been schooled in retail), a love potion that goes awry, a book of instructions that seems to be blank, and a sassy witch whose business is mainly mail-order. Sumptuously modern, but with an old-fashioned fairy tale feel, this is one new witchy series which I’ll be recommending to all. Fun, memorable, touching and bubbly – a real hug of a book. Magic it here.


Spectre Collectors: Too Ghoul for School by Barry Hutchinson, illustrator Rob Biddulph
Some books just scream cinema. This highly visual first-in-a-series will delight comedy fans everywhere. Opening mid-action, Denzel is in the middle of maths homework when his home appears to be invaded at first by a poltergeist, and then by two figures with a gun. Before long, he too is recruited to be part of the ‘Spectre Collectors’, a kind of cross between Ghostbusters and Men in Black, an organisation in which children use magic and technology to rid the world of ‘spectres’.

With impeccable timing on jokes, sparkling top-class humorous dialogue between Denzel and his mates, and great variety of action scenes, this is a wonderful ghostly spoof. Beware a terrifying episode in the middle in which Denzel’s two fathers don’t remember him at all – as if his existence has been scrubbed from the world – but there are enough laughs and improbabilities to combat the darkness. For age 8-12 years. Spook it here.


Amelia Fang and the Barbaric Ball by Laura Ellen Anderson
Vampire Amelia wants to hang out with her pet pumpkin Squashy, but her parents insist she attends their Barbaric Ball. When Squashy is captured, Amelia must plan a daring rescue. This highly illustrated read for 7-9 year olds dazzles with superb illustrations, macabre puns, (including diePhones, scream teas and daymares), and is set in a grisly Nocturnia. But Amelia is a fun, endearing and captivating protagonist, and Anderson’s energy shines through with exuberance in both the prose and the illustrations. Much of the normal landscape has been inverted of course, with the characters sleeping by day and playing by night, as well as ‘cute’ things being feared, and gruesomeness celebrated. Join the vampires here.


Vlad the World’s Worst Vampire by Anna Wilson, illustrated by Kathryn Ourst
I’m not convinced Amelia would love Vlad, but this reader certainly did. Another vampire adventure for 7-9 year olds, Vlad isn’t keen on being a vampire. He secretly reads a rather jolly boarding school book about normal children and decides that it would be nicer to live an Enid Blyton-esque existence. Anna Wilson’s trademark humour works a treat in this rather adorable little adventure, in which Vlad tries to balance his life between human school, in which they don’t realise he’s a vampire, and home life, in which he has to hide his new friends from his family.

Added to the plot are some wonderful little touches, such as his new friends telling Vlad that he needs to get his teeth fixed, to Vlad’s relationship with his very elderly grandfather, but mainly his growing friendship with Minxie. Ourst’s illustrations are a joy – very cartoonlike with gleeful vibrancy. The final picture of Minxie and Vlad laughing is enough to bring a smile to any youngster’s face. A thoroughly enjoyable vampire adventure story, sparkling with wit and warmth. Look out on the blog to see a guest contribution from author Anna Wilson next week, and you can show Vlad some pathos by buying your own copy here.


You Can’t Make Me Go to Witch School by Em Lynas, illustrated by Jamie Littler
A slightly longer adventure story from Nosy Crow publishers for the 7+ age group, which sees the advent of another little witch. Daisy Wart wants to be an actress, more particularly she wants to star as Shakespeare’s Bottom on the stage. But when her grandmother dumps her at Witch School, she struggles to escape, despite all her dramatics. This is a strange school, with cauldrons for beds, pupil-eating plants in the school garden, and the ghost of the former headmistress stalking the corridors – a step up from the sudden appearances of Miss Hardbroom in The Worst Witch.

There are highly original touches and a fixation with hats to distinguish this from other ‘witchy school’ books, and Daisy is a protagonist who definitely fulfils the role of leading lady, with her particular brand of speech and her innermost thoughts about the other characters. First in a series, this book sets up further adventures rather nicely, when Daisy, as I’m sure you’ve all guessed, decides that maybe acting isn’t the only thing she could be good at. Littler’s illustrations work their magic here too – bringing the whole ensemble to life. Join Witch School here.


School for Little Monsters by Michelle Robinson and Sarah Horne
I do sometimes wonder where Michelle Robinson finds the time to write so many picture books, but here’s another one that ticks all the boxes. The book follows two children – Bob and Blob – one a human, one a monster – due to start their first days at school. But sadly for them, some naughty monsters have swapped signs and Bob and Blob attend the wrong schools. Rhyming text pulls the reader through this great mash-up of ‘experience’ and ‘monster’ genres, as the reader finds out about their first days at school. The rules for monsters and humans are apparently a little different. Great fun, superbly funny, colourful illustrations, with lots of mayhem. As with all great picture books, the illustrations speak louder than the words. The message is that school is good, as long as you’re at the right one…Be a little monster here.


An A to Z of Monsters and Magical Beings by Aidan Onn and illustrated by Rob Hodgson
Actually, this should probably be at the top of the pile, as the book very cleverly introduces and explains the different types of monsters, from aliens to zombies. Each letter takes a different ‘magical’ being, with a full double spread committed to it. There are plenty of wacky, although somewhat simply conceived, illustrations in matt, muted colours, accompanied by a small paragraph of text, which is more playful than it is informative. Learn the alphabet here.


Pretty by Canizales
A message in a book, this witchy picture book contribution to Halloween and beyond, is a story about a witch with a date, who wants to look her best. The creatures she meets on route give her hints as to how to better her appearance, but by the end of course, her date is disappointed with her new looks. Rather like wearing a little too much make up. The message is obvious – be yourself, but there’s also a rather dark twist at the end. The witch is brilliantly depicted – simplistic and rather lovingly drawn – despite her perceived failings, from hooked nose to pointy chin. Nice touches include her choice of outfits! Be pretty here. Happy Halloween!

Watch out too for my extract from Scarecrow by Danny Weston coming soon – for an ideal first horror book for your 11 year old (and up!)

The Lost Words by Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris


This week, out of curiosity, and stemmed from my admiration of a heartfelt and well-crafted newspaper article on the attempt to reconnect children with words to describe nature, I ordered one of the largest, most beautiful books I’ve ever seen from my local bookshop. The publishers are at pains to point out that it’s not just for children, but for all, and I would concur. This week’s book of the week is for you as much as for your child.

The Lost Words by Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris is an oversize book of ‘incantations’ or poems, highly illustrated in full-colour, laid out as an ABC of nature, featuring such words as fern, heron, kingfisher, newt and willow. Publishers often talk about whether a pairing of author and illustrator works – Dahl and Blake, Simon and Ross. Here, the force of the words matches the force of the illustrations in the most exquisite way.

Perhaps Morris set out to create a work of paintings to rival the beauty of nature itself – a paean at least. And indeed the artwork is literally breath-taking – I gasped at the first spread on which I opened the book – the branches and leaves stood out as if in 3D. The capture of light on a glowing conker is mesmerising. The layering of the artwork, the exquisite capturing of nature in flux and flight is simply stunning. And there is a thread of gold running through the book – gold foil on the cover – and gold within that marks the book as a ‘treasure’, as something more than mundane. Macfarlane points out that it is reminiscent of medieval illuminated manuscripts, and indeed it implies that what is contained within is to be held in reverence – as with nature itself.

The book runs through an ABC (although some letters are used more than once) of acrostic poems, ‘incantations’, all related to nature. Each subject is attributed three spreads – an illustrated word lost, the poem and illustration, and then a spread depicting the subject within a landscape. Or, in more poetic language – the word slipping away, the summoning poem, and the word being spelled back.

When Macfarlane speaks, (having heard him on the radio), it’s like a tumbling bubbling river running over rocks; he speaks fast as if the words are so numerous he is desperate to give them voice. This is one way of reading the ‘incantations’ held within the book, just hearing the sounds the words make, like a playful witch’s spell, an inner prayer to nature, a chanting even. Indeed, it is anticipated that these ‘incantations’ are to be spoken aloud. Yet another way of reading these acrostic poems is to savour every chosen word – for chosen they most certainly are. The individual vocabulary, the way the words meet each other in phrases, the space around the words on the page.

The poems reflect diversity in their literary artistry. The incantation to the bluebell uses the metaphor of water when thinking about the blue of bluebells. On the next page the picture shows the woodland floor awashed in blue, looking almost like the sea – only the fox prowling through and an owl in flight keep the image grounded among the trees.

The fern breathes with alliteration on the ‘f’ sounds, and Macfarlane uses consonance with the ‘l’ and ‘r’ sounds. The heron incantation explores the relationship between urbanity and nature with its steel metaphor.

There is a duality to the given title of the book. Partly, Morris’s and Macfarlane’s inspiration came following the news in 2015 that around 50 words connected with nature were being cut from the Oxford Junior Dictionary because they had fallen out of use. Almond, blackberry and crocus made way for analogue, block graph and celebrity as long ago as 2007. Naming, as Macfarlane points out, is essential: “We do not care for what we do not know, and on the whole we do not know what we cannot name.” This naming returns the lost words to our vernacular. But, the words of the landscape speak not only to knowledge, but also to the history of the land, the cultural and rural identity of the words we use to describe things.

I would argue that the title also speaks to the reader who will get lost within the book, because the words and artworks are so powerful, so intoxicating. It has the power both to immerse the reader but also to enthrall the reader and entice them to look around them at the outside world.

It’s a big and heavy book, quite difficult to shelve, but that’s probably because it’s not meant to be shelved. It’s meant to lie around the house or garden or field, open and inhaled. At this size and potency, it certainly won’t be lost. You can buy it here.