picturebooks

Listening and Looking

As we move into May, still in lockdown, something has happened to book reviewers. We aren’t getting as many books through the post.* This is for two reasons – firstly, many books that were due to be published in the spring have been moved to the autumn for when (the industry hopes), people are able to browse in bookshops again, and secondly, because there just isn’t anyone in the publishers’ offices to post the books.

At the moment, then, much of my reading is online or through audio. And your children may be experiencing the same.

What’s interesting, in listening to audiobooks, is the range of voices chosen for the narrator. I’ve listened to more accents in the past week than I usually hear in a year, from an Irish lilt to a southern American drawl to what sounds like a very young child’s London accent, but is probably voiced by a startlingly good adult actor. The voices bring a whole new resonance to the text.

And in eerie timing, the National Literacy Trust released some good news about audio books and children just before lockdown began. (National Literacy Trust Audiobooks and Literacy Report February 2020, Emily Best) Listening to audio books means that children can access books they wouldn’t ordinarily be able to read alone, and audio can help children with their understanding of the text by way of tone and pronunciation. The audiobook narrator is a model reader – expression is key, and therefore emotional response may be heightened in the listener: the child’s empathy and understanding are increased. What’s more, the report found that listening requires the same cognitive skills as reading – it is not as passive an activity as you might think.

Some books need to be looked at though – we need to see the illustrations, the colour, the layout and design, the fonts and diagrams. I have been sent ‘digital’ copies of some books for review recently, and for me personally, I miss the physicality of the print book. I like to touch and feel picture books; I find my eye is drawn to different places on the screen as opposed to in print, and I long to be in the physical presence of rows of newly printed books in a bookshop. However, I can spot a good book even in its digital appearance, and I can envisage how it would be to hold it in my hands. Here are two that jumped out at me, and I imagine will be wonderful to finally hold:

nell and the circus of dreams
Nell and the Circus of Dreams by Nell Gifford, illustrated by Briony May Smith
A sumptuously imagined story about a little girl who discovers a temporary circus in the fields beyond her house. Written by Nell Gifford, the owner of Gifford’s Circus, who sadly died in December, this is a richly-written text with magic and heart, matched by the highly-detailed illustrations from Briony May Smith. The little girl, also called Nell, has a sick mother and feels lonely before making friends with a chick, which eventually leads her to the circus community behind her house.

The contrast of her loneliness in the beginning with the packed pages of circus life, buzzing with life and people and the red glow of stage lights is a powerful reminder of the joy of crowds and community, and conjures a new world of inclusivity, inviting aromas, and fun. Although the illustrations, with their imagery of child wonder and nature’s charms, feel old-fashioned, this tale feels particularly relevant to our times. You can buy it here.

wild scientists
Wild Scientists by Steve Mould
A new way of combining the natural world with our perception of teaching science, this book sort of turns things on its head. Split into sections including biology, chemistry, engineering and maths, it aims to show how these sciences are represented naturally – by the animal world. The obvious example is beavers, who are natural engineers with their dam-building, but there are many more obscure examples in the book, such as bat physicists and chilli plant biologists.

What’s most attractive though is that the book is unbelievably bright and colourful, lighting up my computer screen with a mixture of illustrations and photographs – capturing the eye of a cat, the beak of a kingfisher, the hexagons of honeycombs. Showing that we learn from nature, this is a stunning way of teaching science at home. Plenty of diagrams and simple explanations make this a real joy. For age 7+ years. You can buy it here.

*That’s not to say that physical books aren’t still available to purchase. They absolutely are, and all good local bookshops will deliver, as will Waterstones.

With thanks to OUP and DK books for sending me pdfs.

Christmas Picture Books

santas christmas handbookSanta’s Christmas Handbook
Buried in small print on the first page of this delightful Christmas book is the name of the author. I only discovered this after reading the book cover to cover, and rejoicing in the fact that I’d been sent a Christmas book that was entertaining, inventive, witty, and absolutely stuffed to the brim with interactivity. There are lift-the-flaps, games, puzzles and more, so that any reader will be kept preoccupied for some time. And then I saw that it is written by Christopher Edge, and so the well-thought-out contents and imaginative elements made sense – Edge is an experienced and witty writer.

The book is a Santa’s handbook that explains to Santa everything he needs to know to survive Christmas, and starts with a letter from the elves (the real authors of the book), with an enclosed to-do list. Each following page is a treasure trove of fun illustration with lift-the-flap sections. So, there is a sleigh complete with control board and storage, a guide to looking after reindeers, a map of the world with fastest routes for reindeer sleighs, an understanding of how to deliver presents, as well as instructions for navigating rooftops (even those without chimneys). A board game at the end with a ‘crimble-o-meter’ that really spins (excellent paper engineering) completes the book.

Wit triumphs throughout. I enjoyed the ‘insta-chimney’ invention, the potential pit-falls of skylights, the riskiness of large or noisy presents, the ‘SantaNav’ for directions, and first aid kits for ‘tinsellitis’ and more. Edge has all the ground covered here (including children at sea during Christmas), and this book is a packed stockingful of fun. You can buy it here.

mouses night before christmas
Mouse’s Night Before Christmas by Tracey Corderoy and Sarah Massini
Starting with the famous verse, ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas,’ this picturebook quickly swerves to point out that the mouse wasn’t still, but was indeed stirring. This little mouse, cutely rendered by illustrator Sarah Massini with trailing red woollen scarf, delights in Christmas but has no one to share it with. When Santa comes calling, Mouse hitches a ride and becomes the best little helper, but at the end of the night even Father Christmas has to leave, although not before gifting Mouse a present that leads to friendship and companionship.

An anti-materialistic message, in that Christmas is a festival best shared, the book’s illustrations brim with the colourful joyfulness of Christmas, an ornamentally decorated tree with a plethora of presents beneath, the magic of stars and snow, a full cohort of reindeer, and a traditional Father Christmas with twinkly bright eyes. Cute. You can buy it here.

cats christmas carol
A Cat’s Christmas Carol by Sam Hay, illustrated by Helen Shoesmith

More messages on friendship and sharing in this deliciously purr-fect tale for Christmas. Clawdia the cat looks after a department store, and loves to stick to the rules. So when mice break in looking for somewhere warm to hide, the book becomes a game of cat and mouse! Written with dexterity, Hay uses the rhythm of language to play with her plot – the chase is in rhyme, with the department store providing an awesome array of goods – excellent to run amok in. Shoesmith has fun here too – this is a modern department store with a bank of tills and electrical goods, although also with a nod to the traditional in the toy department, and in the layout of the front hall.

By the end, Clawdia gets what she most wants for Christmas, and it isn’t a mouse! The publicity boasts of this as a retelling of A Christmas Carol with whiskers and claws – I’m not sure most readers will see this parallel, other than through the title. The mice remind Clawdia of her own tawdry past, in the hope that she’ll be more generous in the present, but she is far too adorable to be a cat-in for Scrooge. Special touches include the family scene complete with children’s drawings and grandma, and the very lovely department store dining table – reminiscent of Pooh’s last supper at Pooh Corner, but this time Christmas-led with dominant red and greens, and an old-fashioned feel with candelabra, crackers and champagne. You can have a purrfect Christmas here.

follow the star
Follow the Star by Andy Mansfield
A feat of paper engineering in this pop-up Christmas journey as the traditional Christmas star journeys from Bethlehem to the top of a Christmas tree via fields, cities, and individual houses. The rhyming text does little to enhance the book, as the real attraction is the landscape portrayed on each page with intricate 3-D engineering, and a foiled star on each night sky. The yellow backdrop to the cityscape gives the buildings an interior warm glow, and the Christmas tree at the end is nicely done with coloured baubles on each frilly layer of the tree. You can buy it here.

leah's star
Leah’s Star by Margaret Bateson-Hill, illustrated by Karin Littlewood
For those harking for a traditional Christmas book complete with religious element, Leah’s Star twists viewpoint and tells the story of the birth of Jesus from the narrative perspective of Leah, the innkeeper’s daughter. She persuades her father to find room in the stable for the pregnant woman and her husband, and follows the course of the night as visitors come to see what turns out to be quite a special baby. With Bethlehem watercoloured in a hue of terracotta buildings, a warm yellow glow emitting from the stable, and characters painted with warm simpatico expressions, this is a distinctly comforting retelling of the Bible story. A tenderness infuses the illustrations, and Leah in particular is painted with a mix of wonderment, anticipation and kindness. A child’s innocence deftly portrayed. This was first published under the title Leah’s Christmas Story in 2006. You can buy it here.

Finally, very aptly for discussions about tree planting and sustainable Christmases, come three books focussed on the Christmas tree.

the tree thats meant to be
The Tree That’s Meant to Be by Yuval Zommer
A twinkly green cover points towards Christmas, and the protagonist is a small wonky fir tree in the woods, but happily this is a tree for life not just for Christmas. The landscape and scenery of the woods change as the seasons pass, and in winter people come to chop down other trees, but not this little tree, which is left all alone.

Luckily, Zommer’s trademark animals, including deer, foxes and birds with their slanted eyes come to keep the little tree company. The animals wonderfully decorate the tree ‘au naturel’ with acorns and fir cones and brown leaves, the bears standing on their hind paws, the squirrels bringing acorns. As the seasons turn again, the tree sees that it was meant to be part of nature, always in the forest, and it provides a home for birds, and a shelter for children.  Nature as intended.

Zommer’s illustrations are distinctive and beautifully textured – the leaves identifiable, the pictures nodding towards realism, whilst still lending a magical aura to the forest, and nodding to acknowledge their picture book status at the same time. A treat. You can buy it here.

oh christmas tree
Oh, Christmas Tree! By Sue Hendra and Paul Linnet
This lively full-on foiled cover picturebook also features a tree protagonist, one who doesn’t want to be trussed up with baubles and trinkets, but runs away from the decorations in order to be free. By the end, one of the decorations has come up with an idea of how to trick their tree into being more Christmassy. A fun frolicking rhyming book, and one with which children who abhor dressing up or being in the school play will identify. Lots of fun is had by Linnet, imagining the tree doing activities it actually enjoys rather than standing in a pot, such as cycling, baking, and doing science! You can buy it here.

the little fir tree
The Little Fir Tree by Christopher Corr
With a nod to Hans Christian Andersen, this tree protagonist longs to be picked for Christmas, and has to wait through the seasons to be big enough to be picked. The tree dreams of being wood for a ship, or log for a cabin, while the birds laugh at him wishing his life away. Then finally the tree is cut down, and is (in my opinion, strangely) happy as it is brought into a home and decorated with tinsel, ribbons and more, and told stories. The tree revels in its tallness and new-found importance, before being cruelly discarded. By the end though, a squirrel has given it new life. The illustrations are bright and bold, the people slightly sinister in their Picasso-esque profiles, their dress old-fashioned, but all imbued with personality – including even the sun and moon. Different, and certainly striking. You can buy it here.

With thanks to Templar, Nosy Crow, Alanna Max, Simon and Schuster, Oxford University Press, Macmillan and Frances Lincoln publishers for the review copies.

Small in the City by Sydney Smith

small in the cityPicture books are often banded together as if they were a simple genre. But even in one quick thirty-minute book club session at school, I can show my Year 6 cohort that picture books come in all shapes and sizes, are aimed at all different ages, can be about a multitude of topics, and really shouldn’t be all lumped together in a kinderbox. And really great picture books manage to traverse these different categories all in one book.

Small in the City by Sydney Smith (winner of the Kate Greenaway in 2018 for Town is by the Sea, and winner of many awards for Sidewalk Flowers) is ostensibly the travails of a small child in a big city. But delve within, and it’s a picture book about loss.

A small child, first seen on a bus, as on the front cover, travels into a large city, depicted with large steel skyscrapers, traffic, and many people. Wordless at first, the text begins a few pages in with Small’s voice, and at first the reader may believe that Small is talking to them, explaining the noise of the city and the busyness. But it very gradually becomes apparent that this internal monologue is not to you, the reader, but to a missing cat.

The text is observational but also advisory – explaining that the child feels empathy for the lost pet, and wants to guide them home with hope and clarity. The text initially feels as if it is advising the navigation of a big city, but it also merges with advice on life itself; beware of big dogs, look for friendly faces.

After a time, the reader sees that the child is putting up pink posters all over the city for the missing cat (readers will have to look back through the book to see where they missed this first time round), the cleverness of the child apparent in where the posters are placed – a fishmonger, for example.

But it is the cleverness of the illustrator that really shines through here. The child is an everychild – anonymous and gender-less, mainly seen from behind, or when straight on, with a body wrapped up against the cold, head-down. The city too is faceless – this could be any global metropolis.

The illustrations show Smith’s astuteness at perspective – the smallness of Small against the backdrop of skyscrapers, traffic, other people, construction works and telephone poles, even pointing towards the fact that taller adults might feel small against the enormity of the anonymous busy city. And with the search for something, there is an added dimension to the smallness, as if the loss of another can diminish a person and make them feel smaller anyway.

There are close ups, use of a wider lens, all capturing the intimidating nature of the city. This is not claustrophobic, but rather atmospheric. Dangers are implied rather than seen in desolate dark alleys. All angles are covered – looking up, looking down, looking out from a bus. Darkness is all around, and ever approaching as the day draws in – there are black shadows that dominate a vignette, stark plant shapes against a criss-cross window, an extreme close up of a traffic signal, mainly black in its squareness.

But conversely there’s an interesting growing familiarity with the city. Initially, the reader may feel as if the child might be lost – their smallness an indicator of their lack of direction, but this child demonstrates a knowledge of the city – as if they have been searching a long time or repeatedly, or perhaps it is their home town. Yet, the feeling of smallness persists – the city is held at a distance, the child is shut out. The church in which the choir practises is seen only from outside, the person who always plays the piano in the blue house is also anonymous, seen from behind, glimpsed blurrily through the window.

Even the reader is kept at a slight distance – there’s an amazing illustration of the child reflected in a series of mirrored glass panels on a building, the pastel traffic reflected behind, and a slight distortion of the image in the mirrors, the slight wobble that feels both real and haunting. More brilliance in the picture of the child on the bus; the close-up of a woman’s hand on the rail near the child, too close for comfort; the reflection of the city in the window of the bus, as well as the view through the bus to the city the other side, and the silhouettes of adults standing on the bus.

The day may start cold and sunny, but as the child moves through the pages, snow begins to fall. Now the picture blurs again as the streets are seen through increasing snow, red taillights standing out, sleet tyre marks on the road.

So then the illustrator’s detailed knowledge of the city appears – the child is shown positioning their back against the warmth exhalation of a dryer vent.

The text is shut off from the pictures – Small in the city is also alone in the city. Text appears only in the white gaps between the pictures, the illustrations themselves separate within hard black ink frames, locked apart from each other. There’s isolation here, and acute poignancy.

And yet there’s a juxtaposition between the griminess of the city, the urbanity of it, and the child’s calm pace and advice, and the peaceful hush as the snow falls. The lack of panic and anxiety, and the gentle determination of Small. As the blizzard blurs and the darkness increases, the heartfelt loss of the child is what’s felt, until towards the end there’s a glorious illustration of the child walking towards a female adult, with matching bobble hat signifying their kinship, and then Small’s confident resignation in the arms of a comforting adult.

The brilliance of course, is that although the book is about a missing pet, a child in a city, it’s also about the devastation of loss, the moments of waiting, the anticipation of return. Adults will see the emotional depth, young children will look for the pink posters, the hint of a cat, the draw of the city, and those in between will marvel at the detail in the artworks, the intelligence of the text. Most will notice the packaging of this tall book – a skyscraper itself.

Reassured, the final page gives a resolution, but the heartfelt haunting of this wintry book never quite dissipates. Exceptional. You can buy it here.

With thanks to Walker Books for the review copy

Full STEAM Ahead

Stem is a big deal in our house. And now steam too. Science, technology, engineering, arts and maths. So we like to cheer on positive endeavours that promote the extended teaching and learning of creative thinking mixed with science and technology.

Two ingenious books out this autumn have encouraged a host of little ones I know to engage in the topics.

izzy gizmo and the invention conventionFirstly, Izzy Gizmo and the Invention Convention by Pip Jones and Sara Ogilvie, a picture book championing a diverse protagonist, science and creativity, with lively illustrations and a compelling story. Actually the second book about Izzy Gizmo, the first of which championed friendship and was shortlisted for the Sainsbury’s Book Prize 2017, this new book continues the adventures of the determined, exuberant female lead in a rhyming triumph that promotes an environmental theme, showing the power of solar and wind energy, as well as recycling.

At the Invention Convention, Izzy, persuaded into going by her supportive and enthusiastic grandpa (who recognises that failures can lead to success), is beaten to the store of supplies by a fellow competitor. Despairing of not being able to assemble her invention without equipment, she soon realises that broken discarded tools from the aforementioned fellow competitor might be the very thing she needs. There are still more obstacles and the prospect of failure, as well as learning to trust her friend, but eventually Izzy wins the day with her tool-fix-recycle-o-matic.

Ogilvie harnesses the same inventiveness and imagination as the protagonist with her lively illustrations, which are full of zest and energy – bright colours, clever use of everyday props, and of course her effortless expressive characters on their narrative journey. Young children will recognise the emotions Izzy goes through – frustration, expectation, hope, grumpiness, impatience and more, but will delight in the triumphant ending.

Witty rhyming, fittingly innovative illustrations – Izzy Gizmo is always a winner! You can buy a copy here.

essential guide to steamSecondly, nonfiction title, The Essential Guide to Steam by Eryl Nash et al, illustrated by Vicky Barker, aims to denounce the myth that students and children need to choose between science and arts, but instead can not only embrace the two, but see how they might work in harmony. In fact, a recent conversation with a student choosing her A-levels involved this very dilemma. Can you study biology and chemistry with art?

Scientists and artists are not dissimilar, and share many skillsets, incorporating technical attributes and creativity into their work. A scientist may use illustrations to show their findings. An artist needs to use maths to achieve a creative vision.

The authors of this book show this in a multitude of ways, each page vividly and boldly illustrated in the complete rainbow of colours. There are mind maps to explore creative thinking, shapes spotted in everyday life, and a real understanding of how creative visions lead to scientific experiments, which in turn lead to real life inventions and practicalities.

Scientific topics covered include energy, sound, light, magnets, gravity, forces, measurements and more, all intertwined with practical applications, as well as diagrams, cartoon strips, facts, annotated illustrations and thought bubbles. There’s even a very helpful section on household engineering! This is a phenomenal science book for ages 7+, explaining each concept clearly and concisely, whilst using art and everyday examples to show how creativity has played its part. You can buy a copy here.

With thanks to Simon and Schuster and b small publishing for the review copies.

Sofia Valdez, Future Prez by Andrea Beaty, illustrated by David Roberts

sofia valdezI have a soft spot for the Questioneers, the series of picture books that includes Rosie Revere, Iggy Peck and Ada Twist. They started a STEM revolution all of their own, and their now distinctive look, complete with graph paper background, is a constant presence in any good library or children’s bookcase.

With the latest in the series though, Beaty has captured the zeitgeist, deviating slightly from science and focussing on politics. Here, she points to the hope that children can provide, especially in the face of poor management and inept leadership by adults. With a nod to inclusivity and equal rights by both author and illustrator, Sofia Valdez’s first policies focus on the environment, namely waste management and green spaces.

Sofia is quite rightly disturbed by the landfill site in her neighbourhood, especially when she sees its dangers. She decides it’s time to replace it with a park for her community, but finds that facing city hall is harder than she thought. It takes determination and the support of her neighbours to see it through.

Of course there are repeating themes here from the former picture books on Rosie Revere and crew, including determination and putting in the hours, but there are new themes springing up all the time. Sofia walks to school with her Abuelo, and this cross-generational relationship is of the utmost importance. Moreover, bureaucracy reigns large at City Hall, and author Beaty and illustrator Roberts have both had great fun exploring the humour and ridiculousness of sprawling officialdom and red tape. Of course, the book rhymes, as per the rest of the series, and Beaty plays on the idea of having different departments in different rooms, with silly names and fun numbers.

The most galling aspect for Sofia is the clerk’s quick dismissal of her as ‘only a kid’. In our current times of Greta Thunberg, this is clearly highly ironic. Sofia doesn’t turn away from this, and in an insightful way asks the clerk what she would do if she were in Sofia’s shoes.

After a daunting presentation, a plethora of ideas, a march and a petition, surveys and budgets and more, Sofia’s dreams become a reality. Her diverse community receives a much-wanted green space.

This is a feel-good picture book. It demonstrates the power of the individual to make a difference, but also the power and meaning of a community. And it pulls together the strands of science and creativity – change is brought about only after an individual has a vision.

Beaty impressively keeps the tight rhythm and rhyme that gave her such success with her other picture books, and Roberts’ expressive illustrations add humour and bite to each scene. As well as the blatant message, and the plot-driven text, it’s worth a longer linger over the illustrations. Sofia’s bedroom betrays her character, the mountain of trash is telling in itself, but most of all the community is portrayed in all its glorious differences and similarities. Children will love spotting Rosie, Iggy and Ada. Definitely one to add to your collection. Who knows, books such as these may inspire a better calibre of leader in the future.

With thanks to Abrams books for the review copy.

Vote Sofia Valdez, Future Prez here.

Seeing Shadows

shadowMy Year 6 bookclub always look surprised when I tell them it is picture book week. As if, I explain, they haven’t heard me extolling the use of picture books for all ages every day! This week I’ll introduce them to Shadow by Lucy Christopher, illustrated by Anastasia Suvorova – just as I am to you.

This exquisitely subtle picture book shows us a young girl and her mother moving into a new house. It’s formidable and stark, all angles and shadows, so really should come as no surprise to the seemingly reluctant girl that she finds a shadow under her bed. But Shadow isn’t menacing. Shadow is Peter Pan-esque, fun and companionable; this shape-shifting piece of darkness comes as friend, complete with rosy cheeks to match the girl. But the child’s mother can’t see Shadow. In fact, her mother seems at first preoccupied, and then just sad and unseeing – her eyes heavily lidded and shown in shadow.

When the girl and Shadow go to the forest, Shadow disappears and the girl is left alone. Until a familiar voice comes through the darkness…

The prose is simple and light, brief and active, with a wonderful momentum.

This atmospheric picture book could be an allegory about pushing through a childhood whilst living with a parent’s depression, or it could merely be a generic everyman story about coming through loss and darkness into a new world of captured happiness – for yes, there is a happy ending. In fact, the loss of Shadow in the forest is replaced by the dual togetherness of the mother and daughter shadows stretching from their hand-in-hand silhouettes. Returning home from the forest, their new house transitions from one of spectral isolation to one embedded within a whole village, with familiarity and warmth bleeding through the pages. The illustrations turn from dark greys and moody whites, distinctive and atmospheric, to ones toasted with a heat of yellows and intense reds, with an influx of people.

There’s much to read into these illustrations – from the white scratchings aross the page of the early images, as if light is attempting to get through and failing, to the bright redness of the girl’s hair and cheeks and dungarees – a lightness in the face of dark. But even she is tinged with sadness – her eyes perpetually slightly vacant, slightly sad – more noticeable when contrasted with the absolute delight depicted on her face in the later pages when her eyes, fascinatingly enough, are closed in happiness.

However children read into this picture book, whether as being about attention received, about overcoming loneliness and anxiety, depression and loss, they will be able to create a backstory to the characters, and see that in the end darkness and despair are driven out by human interaction and togetherness.

Below, Lucy Christopher explains the genesis to Shadow:

In my debut picture book story, Shadow, a lonely young child moves into a new house where she finds a shadow under the bed who she makes friends with. Together they make mischief and run away, only to be found again by Mum. It’s a story about loneliness and sadness and how this might manifest itself in the very young. Ultimately it’s a story of an awareness of darkness – and shadows – and of coming together.

I was lonely as a child. By the time I was five years old, I had lived in three countries and five houses. My parents had divorced, and my dad now lived thousands of miles across the world. I was beginning my second school, this time in a small country town in South Wales, and living with my single mother and grandmother. I had no siblings and no friends.

On one level it’s easy to see a connection between the child in Shadow and me as a young girl. The feelings of being alone, moving to a new house, and making my own mischief were things I readily understood. I had many imaginary friends, many of them dogs and cats and horses. I spent hours imagining and drawing a huge stable yard of ponies – each one with personality inventories, lovingly drawn tack wardrobes, and a growing list of skillsets. I lived almost entirely in my imagination.

As soon as I could write, I did. I wrote constantly – letters back to my Dad in Australia, or to my family in other parts of the world, letters to friends when I went on holiday. When I was nine, and we did it all again – this time moving back to Australia – my letter writing intensified. I bought notebooks and filled them, sending them back to my family or friends in whatever country I wasn’t in at the time – sometimes my letters would stretch over whole 250-page A5 notebooks. As I grew up in Australia, I became more serious about my own stories, too. My gifts to favourite teachers were stories I had written about them. I wrote to authors I admired. And then, gradually, I began to enter, and sometimes even win, short story competitions. More and more, I started to define myself through the words I wrote.

There’s no denying that aspects of my childhood were hard at times – living in four countries and a dozen houses by the time I hit eighteen has got to have an impact – but these experiences were also massive contributors to what made me a writer, most especially, a writer for young people. I’ve no doubt that my creativity, and my writing skills, are intricately connected to my feelings of loneliness as a child. All my novels have aspects of me inside them, but in some ways Shadow is my most personal story. Shadow came from a place I knew extremely well, and it wouldn’t exist without my history. The little girl in the story isn’t me, and I didn’t find an actual shadow to play with under the bed of one of my many new houses (oh, but how much fun I would have had if I did!), but her journey in the story is also my journey in life.

I do hope though that there are other young children out there who may recognise some of the feelings and themes within the story, and that they may take something from this story. I hope that Shadow will be a book that parents and children can share together. I hope it will offer a chance for discussion about aspects of loneliness and sadness, and how it’s possible to overcome these things through a stronger emphasis on connection.

With thanks to Lucy Christopher for her guest blog post, and to Lantana Publishing for the review copy. Shadow is available in good UK, US, Can and Aus bookshops, or you can purchase it direct from Lantana publishing

For every book purchased from the Lantana website, they will donate a book to children’s hospitals in the UK.

Follow the rest of the blogtour here.

Fairy Tales for a New Generation

This isn’t the first time I’ve written about fairy tales. In fact, I probably have a fairy tales blog every six months or so. Why is that? Are fairy tales so important? Yes, they are. People have written whole theses on the topic…but essentially fairy tales work because they give us a view of how life is within a set structure. Within this fantasy framework we can formulate dreams and understand our deep-set fears.

Publishers aren’t just reprinting old fairy tales in new editions though. With a sense of our own changing societal rules and preoccupations, they are releasing anthologies that aim to subvert the status quo, or shine a light on forgotten tales, and writers are retelling tales with modern twists.

hansel and gretel
Hansel and Gretel by Bethan Woollvin
is my favourite fairy tale this autumn. With a subversive grin at parents everywhere, Woollvin neatly turns this fairy tale on its head by making the children the villains. In this retelling, Hansel and Gretel are a little entitled, helping themselves to sweets from a strange house. Woollvin pushes this idea, subverting who is good and who is bad, as the children’s naughty antics test the witch, even though she tries so hard to be a good hostess. In the end, of course, even the nicest witch can be driven too far. No stranger to subverting fairy tales, with past titles including Little Red and Rapunzel, Woollvin’s clever two tone illustrations highlight the pertinent points of the story, zooming in and out as if the reader is operating a film camera. Witty and wise. You can buy it here.

secret of the tattered shoes
The Secret of the Tattered Shoes by Jackie Morris and Ehsan Abdollahi
A completely different take on the traditional fairy tale of The Twelve Dancing Princesses is illustrated with great intricacy in this slightly melancholic version. Morris plays with themes of love and redemption in her poetic retelling, her soldier ‘a hollow shadow of a man’, her princess with ‘a smile like frost on glass’. Abdollahi matches the depths of Morris’s story with fully detailed illustrations, turning the characters into complex puppets, and inserting golden headpieces that illuminate the page, fruit that tempts the reader to try to pluck it, and a weariness in the eyes of her tired dancers. A supreme and surprising twist makes this a complex but worthy new interpretation. You can buy it here.

reading beauty
Reading Beauty by Deborah Underwood, illustrated by Meg Hunt
My last fairy tale picture book retells Sleeping Beauty with a rhyme, transplants it to the future, and gives it a feminist feel. Lex is a booklover, but her parents remove all her books when she is 15. No, not because they feel she’s a fully fluent reader and doesn’t need more help, but because a nasty fairy cursed Lex with the promise of a paper cut, which would put her in a death-like sleep. Of course, a bookworm such as Lex uses knowledge from her books to overcome the curse, and outwit the nasty fairy, who it turns out, has a reason for her evil-nature. A fun, futuristic, humorous retelling with bold, bright, and busy illustrations. You can buy it here.

eight princesses
Eight Princesses and a Magic Mirror by Natasha Farrant, illustrated by Lydia Corry
More modernity in this collection of original short stories, which takes eight princesses and gives them modern cause. There’s the princess who saves natural landscapes from urban developers, the princess who discovers being kind trumps being royal. Bookended with the tale of an enchantress and a magic mirror who long to discover what princesses are really like, the stories are told in the rhythm of traditional fairy tales, but with a firmly modern outlook, as the princesses are revealed not to care so much about their looks and future husbands, but more about being brave and determined and independent (even those who do marry). Illustrated in colour throughout by Lydia Corry, each tale feels quite distinct from the next, and yet form a cohesive whole. Perhaps a Christmas gift for Meghan? Age 8+. You can buy it here.

lost fairy tales

The Lost Fairytales, retold by Isabel Otter, illustrated by Ana Sender
It seems not all traditional fairy tales need to be reimagined or repurposed for our new sensibility. This anthology gathers tales from around the world, all of which feature heroines who demonstrate bravery and wit and none of whom needs rescuing. Instead, Isabel Otter has rescued the stories from their precarious position outside the canon of traditional tales. A story map at the beginning helpfully shows where the tales have been rescued from – so we find out that Sacred Waterfall, a fairy tale about Bending Willow, who won’t bend to her fate but shows persistence in what she believes to be right, is a tribal story hailing from what we now know as Canada, and The Shining Dragons, the tale of a fearsome orphan called Thakane who shows both immense bravery and also huge cunning, comes from Lesotho. Illustrated throughout with warmth and spirit, and with sensitivity to the region from which the stories come, this is an intelligent collection. More information in the back about story origin and thinking points. Age 7+. You can buy it here.

forgotten fairy tales
Forgotten Fairy Tales of Brave and Brilliant Girls with a foreword by Kate Pankhurst
Although I have qualms with books that advertise ‘boys’ or ‘girls’ on the cover, lest it should be off-putting to others, this collection also aims to firmly reclaim fairy tales with a feminist agenda. These traditional tales haven’t been retold with a twist, but rather are retold as they were, with modern language but the same storyline in order to show that traditional fairy tales featuring brave, determined women as protagonists did, and always have, existed. As attitudes change, so do the stories being told. This anthology sets text against a plain white background, with simple prose, and colour illustrations dotted throughout. The tales feel familiar – goblins, giants and castles, sisterly love and happy-ever-after marriages, but all with strong, agenda-setting female protagonists. For age 7+. You can buy it here.

folk tales for bold girls
Folk Tales for Bold Girls by Fiona Collins, illustrations by Ed Fisher

Lastly, something a little different, in that this is a compact book that concentrates far more on the text – black and white illustrations heading up chapters only. But the illustrations do something clever – they transpose real bold girls (from photographs) into the folk characters (in illustration).

The text too is clever, simply told, and yet with a distinctive rhythm to its plainness. There is no didacticism – the tales are for the reader to disseminate. Tales from other countries abound, even some familiar tales such as Red Riding Hood retold as a non-traditional version. Collins lists her sources at the back, and this too is fascinating, with an emphasis on the reader looking up further tales and retelling them themselves. A sort of pass-it-on telling, which is the very essence of folk and fairy tales anyway. And of course they all feature bold girl protagonists. For age 7+. You can buy it here.

Friendship Picture Books

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

my friends

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

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

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

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

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

we are together

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

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

A Q&A with Jon Agee

Jon Agee has published more than 30 picture books, but may have come to MinervaReads readers’ attention with his picture book The Wall in the Middle of the Book. This October, he comes to England from the States, and is appearing at The Children’s Bookshow, following the publication of his latest picture book, Life on Mars, on August 1st.

life on marsLife on Mars follows a young astronaut in pursuit of evidence that there is life on planet Mars. As he explores the red planet, beautifully illustrated in stark black outlines, unbeknown to him, a large simpatico alien follows behind. Rather sweetly, the astronaut does discover life on Mars, but doesn’t quite make the discovery the reader has. Agee has pictured this planet’s landscape as rather hostile; large empty surfaces, dangerous craters and looming mountains, but this contrasts so well with the warmth of life itself that the reader is drawn into the book, both in terms of cheering on the astronaut and the alien life form. With wit in illustration and text, this is a mission accomplished.   

Before his performance at The Children’s Bookshow, I’ve been lucky enough to ask Jon some questions.

You’ve published more than 30 picture books.  Do you find it gets easier with each book?

Yes, probably, though every book seems to have its own evolution, from original idea to final execution.  The text for My Rhinoceros was written, almost word-for-word, in a notebook in one afternoon.  The Wall in the Middle of the Book began as a simple notion; treating the book’s middle (or gutter, as we call it) as if it was a solid barrier.  But it took many months for a story to materialize.  Little Santa had a promising, offbeat premise, but  – as so often happens – I couldn’t figure out where to go next, and I tossed the dummy in a file.  Months later, looking at it again with fresh eyes, the rest of the story came quickly.

So, a concept doesn’t always come to you fully formed? For example, with Life on Mars, did you start with an astronaut seeking life, or the box of chocolate cupcakes (the astronaut has taken cupcakes as a gift for the life form he hopes he’ll find)?

Book concepts begin as wisps of an idea: a doodle of people chatting, a phrase or sketch that has an unusual juxtaposition.  If it amuses me, I pursue it.  With Life on Mars, I made drawings of a little astronaut walking around a remote planet, communicating with the folks back on Earth.  “Do you see anything?” they ask.  “Nothing yet,” he responds. His matter-of-fact conversation, juxtaposed with the ominous alien creatures watching him was the spark for the story.  The chocolate cupcakes came later.

What comes first, the illustrations or the text?

Doodles (loose drawings) of people and other living creatures, followed by text or talk balloons.

the wall in the middle of the bookThe illustrations in Life on Mars have very strong defined shapes with clear thick black outlines. Whereas in The Wall you went without the outlines. How do you decide what sort of illustration will suit the subject matter?

Every book seems to require its own palette, or motif.  For Life on Mars, the sky was a flat black.  As a counterpoint, I gave the planet texture, with crayon, colored pencil and wash.  The landscape was made up of simple shapes (craters and rocks), so a thick black outline worked well.

The Wall has a two-dimensional look, like a compressed stage set, where the reader follows the action from the front row of the theater.  Since the artwork was mostly large, strongly defined shapes against the white page, I didn’t think an outline was necessary.

And the faces are drawn very simply and yet are still full of expression – the reader can work out what’s going on without the text. How do you imbue a character with expression?

Since I draw simply, I use everything available: the face, body (posture), gesture, gait, scale, juxtaposition, lighting.  In Life on Mars, the little astronaut has about ten distinct emotional episodes.  When he steps out of his spaceship he surveys the Martian vista from up on a rock.  This suggests confidence.  When he walks, he stands upright, and his footprints follow a direct route.  Again, confidence.  As he becomes doubtful, his footprints start to zigzag.  Then there’s a close-up of his face.  He looks concerned.  Further on, his posture slumps.  He abandons his box of cupcakes.  All these elements are used to convey the way the character is feeling.

Much of your text is very honed down, very sparse. Does it take a while to get to the state in which not a superfluous word is used?

The editing process doesn’t seem to stop until we’ve sent the book to the printers.  With a picture book, you’re revising both pictures and text, and how they relate to each other.  As pictures are revised, the text usually needs to be whittled down.  It’s inevitable that you fall in love with a word, line or phrase, and sometimes, only late in the process, you realize that it has to go.

In fact, many of your books play with words. Does this come fairly naturally? 

I think so.  In Nothing, a wealthy eccentric states that she has everything, but she’s never had nothing.  So she sets out to buy nothing.  In Terrific, a grump named Eugene proves – with sarcasm – how a word like “terrific” can mean two different things depending on how you express it.  Another double meaning appears at the end of The Incredible Painting of Felix Clousseau.  The text reads that Mr. Clousseau “returned to his painting” and the picture shows that he has – believe it or not! – walked into a painting.  In Life on Mars, the word “life” suggests a Martian creature, but it ends up meaning something completely different.

I should add that, along with my picture books, I have created a fair number of books of wordplay: anagrams, oxymorons, spoonerisms, tongue twisters, and four volumes of palindromes, beginning with Go Hang a Salami!  I’m a Lasagna Hog!  (Forwards and backwards it says the same thing).

Your books are also full of humour – how important is this in a picture book?

True, my books are often funny.  Humour is useful when writing about serious or complicated subjects (see many books by Dr. Seuss).  That said, humour is not essential.  One of my most favorite picture books, Sylvester and the Magic Pebble, is not a very funny book.

What advice would you give a child who wants to be an author/illustrator?

Keep a notebook: write in it, draw in it.  Read all kinds of things: books, articles, old letters, fortune cookies.  Look around: at artwork, movies, theatre, dance, nature, animals, and people at work and play.

Two recent books, Life on Mars and The Wall, both refer in some way to topical events – Life on Mars to the essence of our being and space exploration (the anniversary of the lunar landing), – and The Wall to the divisions in our society. Is this on purpose – do you try to write topically, or are the topics just in your head?

The Wall was inspired simply by the architecture of a book; thinking about the opposing rectangular pages as unique places, separated by the binding in the middle.  Many months later, a story emerged from this.  The concept of a protective wall seemed ripe for parody, so I turned it on its head.  It was simply coincidence that the book was published at a time when a controversial wall was being discussed here in the States.

Life on Mars came about from doodles of a young astronaut wandering a barren planet, watched, unwittingly, by curious alien creatures.  There was something amusing about the juxtaposition of us knowing – and his not knowing – what was going on just behind him.  What does it mean?  The truth is, when I’m working on a book, I don’t think about what it means.  I know there’s a message or a moral, but I leave that for the readers to figure out.

With thanks to Jon Agee for answering my questions so comprehensively. To purchase tickets for The Children’s Bookshow, click here, and to purchase Life on Mars, click here. With thanks to Scallywag Press for the review copies.

Taxi Ride with Victor: A Guest Post from Sara Trofa

taxi ride with victorImagine a character who has always wanted a certain job, but when he gets it, he can’t quite master it. No, I’m not talking about Boris Johnson, but rather Victor, the main character in Taxi Ride with Victor by Sara Trofa and illustrated by Elsa Klever. This title, shortlisted for the World Illustration Awards in 2018, beautifully pairs crazily outlandish illustrations with the simple tale of a taxi driver who always gets lost, but always brings happiness, as his passengers find unexpected, but fun adventures at their surprising destinations.  

The book is as zany as Victor himself, a taxi driver navigating outer space, and holds a raft of characters with numerous eyes or limbs, and a cloud come to life. Even the narrator is a three-eyed gray blob of a creature. This is a bright and unique picture book about finding friendship and embracing activities and places one might not expect to encounter, as well as making the reader think about their own value and contribution to society.

Below, author Sara Trofa explains her inspiration for the text.

When I write, most of the time I start from a character rather than from a topic. I note their personality, how they look and behave, what they want and what their problems are. Also, I give them a name. It might sound silly, but I can’t continue if I don’t give them a name (baby name books and websites are great for that)! Of course the name might change or not even appear in the final text, depending on the narrator’s voice and other aspects, but  in my head they need to have a specific name. It’s like part of their personality. Victor has had several other names before in my story process. “Victor” was also my grandma’s oldest brother’s name.

So Victor came to me like that: a taxi driver who doesn’t take you where you ask.

Then the most exciting part comes: considering all the possibilities for the character and their behaviour. Slowly the plot takes a specific direction and I start seeing the actual meaning of what I’m creating.

Victor’s mistakes are a great opportunity to discuss relationships, not only with other people, but also with ourselves. Why do we make mistakes? Why is it so difficult for us to accept them? What are the consequences and how can we deal with them?

Our society tends to value a person for their contributions and for their “usefulness”. What could the social value of a taxi driver be if he doesn’t take you where you ask to go? If he doesn’t provide the service that he is supposed to?

Starting from there, I wanted the other characters not just to accept Victor but to actually be able to see his true value and to enjoy the unexpected outcomes of his “mistakes”.

Also, sometimes we think that we are what we do, specifically what we do as a job. But Victor is much more than a taxi driver. He gives a bigger gift to his passengers and that is possible only because the passengers are open to the possibilities of the final destinations to which he brings them.

How sad it would be if they just let themselves be mad at Victor? Or if Victor gave up after the first “failures”?

So I wanted all of them, Victor included, to be able to be surprised and to welcome the unexpected.

The readers’ point of view is also something unexpected and marvellous. Isn’t it exciting when somebody reads your story in a new way, different from what you’ve planned while writing it?! Of course the readers are re-tellers of the story, they get to create their own version of the story and that’s such a generous gift for the author.

I wrote a story about mistakes, acceptance, being together, helping each other, not giving up. Victor’s readers will tell me what else this book is about and I can’t wait for that!

For other new picture books on friendship and unexpected journeys, visit MinervaReads in October for an autumn picture book roundup. In the meantime you can purchase Taxi Ride with Victor here, and find Sara on twitter @SaraTrofa. With thanks to Prestel for the review copy, and Sara for her guest post.