picturebooks

Be My Valentine

I’ve taken the liberty of focussing on love in general for my picture books on Valentine’s Day. That’s not to say I eschew romance – not at all! But working as a primary school librarian, Valentines are more likely passed from friend to friend or child to family member or even to pet, and this is what these three picture books celebrate.

the kissThe Kiss by Linda Sunderland, illustrated by Jessica Courtney-Tickle

In the so-called current trend for uplit (literature that’s uplifting for the soul), this picture book fits lovingly into the zeitgeist. Edwyn blows a kiss to his grandma, shown on the cover as a gold foil sprinkle of stars, like dandelion seeds released into the wind. Edwyn’s grandma shares her received kiss, almost as an act of kindness, bestowing it upon those who need it most, such as a sad old man and a cross mother. But then darkness descends in the shape of a man who steals it and wants to keep the kiss for himself, all locked up as an artefact in a cage. But this has devastating consequences for the kiss, for him, and also for the outside world. Luckily, he not only sees the error of his ways, but is granted swift forgiveness by the kind grandma, and all is resolved.

Courtney-Tickle illustrates the story with an emphasis on nature and the outdoors. Most of her large double page illustrations are populated with wildflowers, colourful leaves, animals and outdoor activities with a clear focus on weather – all emphasised by the choice of dancing leaves on the book’s endpapers. The colour is magical, reminiscent of David Litchfield, with an old-fashioned fairy tale quality, exemplified by marching bands, an abundance of Snow-White-esque wildlife, cold dark towers, a simplicity in the characters’ timeless outfits. And yet a modernity creeps in too – a wooden bin at the park, mobile phones, an abundance of balloons.

The book is about love shared, kindnesses spread, and the empathy needed to understand others. You can buy it here. 

mirabel's missing valentinesMirabel’s Missing Valentines by Janet Lawler, illustrated by Olivia Chin Mueller

More love shared in this whimsical picture book from the States, which really is about Valentine’s Day.

Mirabel, our shy and anxiety-ridden mouse, complete with large eyes, long whiskers and a penchant for hats, sets out for school to deliver her Valentine’s cards.

The reader is entreated to rhyming text to tell Mirabel’s story – the joy at creating the cards and the angst about delivering them – but it is only through ‘reading’ the pictures that we see the cards spill from her bag on her way to school. The recipients of the spilled cards (all strangers in the town) return them with smiles, touched by their heartfelt sincerity and the fleeting opportunity to see them, which makes them smile and gives them joy. The happiness she has inadvertently spread gives Mirabel the confidence to take them to school.

The illustrations are old-worldly, a cast of anthropomorphic animals fill the book, the buildings look as if they come from a playmobil playset. But if you’re after a picturebook about overcoming anxiety and shyness, and how kindness can spread, this may be one for you. Endearing. You can buy it here. 

rosie is my best friendRosie is My Best Friend by Ali Pye

A much more modern outlook in this fresh and zippy tale of friendship that relies heavily upon the reader’s visual understanding as well as narrative absorption. Rosie explores how she spends her day with her best friend – helping the adults around them, playing games, learning new tricks. There’s a delightful contradiction between the helpfulness Rosie and her friend think they are giving, and the actual consequence of some of their actions, and the illustrations not only reveal the truth but burst with friendliness, vibrancy and warmth themselves, from the stroll in the park with balloon seller, boating and games, to the make-believe play at home.

There is familiarity in this tale of an ‘everyday’, a comfort from the openness of the characters and the intense cuteness of both girl and dog. The twist at the end is both writerly and masterful – suggesting the reader thinks about point of view and perspective. Clever, witty, and completely adorable. Give it to your Valentine for Valentine’s here. 

 

It’s Raining Cats and Dogs

I don’t have a pet, which means we often play a hypothetical game: if you had to choose, which would you be – a dog family or a cat family?

the dog who saved the worldThe Dog Who Saved the World by Ross Welford
This is another cracking read from a premier storyteller of our time. Eleven-year-old Georgie befriends an eccentric scientist hiding beneath an old entertainment centre, and becomes a guinea pig in her virtual reality 3D future. But when a deadly disease threatens the life of all dogs, and Georgie’s own dog gets sick, it’s a race to find a cure – a cure which most probably lies in the future.

Welford’s writing is always clever and engaging, rattling through his plots with pace, humour and pathos, and it’s the kind of book you want to devour in one gulp. But to fully appreciate its modern sensibility and its heft as a meaty children’s book, it’s the little details that, when put together, make this an absolute belter of a book. Georgie’s friend is a refugee from ‘Nowhere-stan’ as he calls it himself, a country so decimated and of such  little interest to the people here. But he’s an upbeat boy, with a raft of funny lines, a fully developed character who’s a great friend.

The eccentric doctor is a social media billionaire technologist in hiding, who makes wonderful wisecracks about kids today;  even the bit-part owner of the corner shop is named Norman Twokids by the kids for his ‘no more than two children at a time’ policy. Add to this the moments of sweetness and empathy – the relationship between Georgie and her teen big brother, the small satisfaction that comes from a dog wagging its tail as it greets you – this is a slick, brilliant novel and even if dogs aren’t your thing, you’d be mad to miss it. For ages 9+ years. You can buy it here.

collecting catsCollecting Cats by Lorna Scobie
When I was little I had to learn the poem Cats Sleep Anywhere by Eleanor Farjeon, and recite it in front of an audience. I still remember the first line, and it leads into a rhythmic romp through the places cats inhabit. I think if I had closed my eyes and imagined the illustrations, they would have looked like something out of Collecting Cats, a humorous riot of cat personalities. The anonymous narrator wants to collect cats, and starts with cheese. Cheese leads to mice, which leads to cats. And unfortunately for the narrator, then big cats. As well as a clowder of cats in a vast array of different colours and personalities, there is also a quirky collection of grabby mice. Scobie’s text is simple and logical with just the right amount of toned down humour, and her illustrations are flush with character, story and insight. For cat collectors, or picture book collectors, or simply readers. You can buy it here.

lulu gets a catLulu Gets a Cat by Anna McQuinn, illustrations by Rosalind Beardshaw
An exemplary first experience book in the Lulu series, which showcases the responsibility involved in owning a pet. Lulu’s appeal is not only that her adventures are embedded in the family core, but books about her also highlight those things that are important in small lives. The visit to a library to find out more, a tick list at home giving her life structure and order, a loving and caring relationship with her parents, and a grounding in real life. One or two simple sentences per page, with the main focus being on the colourful illustrations of familiar situations – sitting on a parent’s lap looking at a laptop together, everyday dressing up for the fun of it, helping with shopping, and feeling secure in one’s bedroom. This particular episode in Lulu’s life points up the preparation needed before getting a cat, and its slow integration into the family. Wonderful. You can buy it here.

danny and the dream dogDanny and the Dream Dog by Fiona Barker, illustrated by Howard Gray
Danny’s mother isn’t as easily persuaded as Lulu’s, and Danny’s only dog is a dream dog. That is, until a new neighbour moves in next door who needs help with walking her dog. This seems like a perfect solution until Danny starts walking Maximus and realises that it isn’t as wonderful as he thought it’d be. Especially when it rains, or Maximus pulls on the leash and wants to chase rabbits. Before long though, Danny comes to see that it’s the community he embraces whilst walking Maximus that makes it a dream job, and the cosy chats with his new elderly neighbour afterwards.

In essence, of course, this is a picture book about friendship, being community minded, and neighbourliness. The illustrations are warm and wholesome, creating whole immersive scenes on almost every spread – tea with the neighbour shows her life through a series of family photographs on the wall behind, scenes in the park demonstrate the diversity of the people there and the things they do. There are also many elements of humour wrapped into the book – squirrels threatened by the dogs, dog-shaped slippers. It’s a little dream of a picture book. You can buy it here. 

tiger walkTiger Walk by Dianne Hofmeyr and Jesse Hodgson
There are no domestic pets in this art-inspired picture book, but a tiger who oscillates between tame and wild in order to rid the young boy, Tom, of his fears. Tom visits an art gallery and sees the painting Surprised! by Rosseau. At home, he tries to copy the picture, and at night the tiger springs from the picture, and carrying Tom on its back, takes him on adventures through the jungle. It’s a neat conceit, in that every time the tiger suggests what to do next, Tom is scared – of swimming, of the cold, of the dark, of beasts. The tiger reassures him, and in the end Tom realises that of course he isn’t scared – he’s ridden a fearsome beast all through the night.

Brought to dramatic life by sumptuous illustrations that seem to have burst from the Rousseau painting, the colours are bold and expressive, not only traversing between fear and curiosity, wild and tame, but also real and dreamlike. This is a clever picture book with sumptuous text that bears out the artistry in the illustrations too – moonlight shines, icicles crackle, tigers have swishing tails and flashing eyes.  Aglow with natural beauty, this tiger comes close to winning a top spot in the heart, even if this one doesn’t come into the kitchen and devour all the tea. You can buy it here.

Children’s Mental Health Week

With social media and children’s mental health dominating the airwaves this week in the UK, and statistics released that show, not only the rise in mental health problems among the young, but also a rise in suicide, it’s more and more important to be an active part in protecting and looking after children’s mental health. For me, books are an effective way through any difficulties, providing a de-stress just by reading, but also often having the content show a way forward, to promote empathy, and to calm a troubled mind. Here are three books to help a child navigate through, particularly pertinent in this Children’s Mental Health Week.

my hidden chimpMy Hidden Chimp by Professor Steve Peters (and The Silent Guides)
Which child (or adult for that matter) hasn’t over-reacted to something? Perhaps using anger as a reflex when being told off, or experiencing heightened anxiety about an upcoming test that then manifests itself as an extreme emotion? Perhaps a toddler resorts to tantrums or being unkind to another child when things aren’t going their way. Professor Peters believes that one way of dealing with this is to control one’s inner chimp.

Peters’ first book, The Chimp Paradox, sold over a million copies, but it was a self-help book aimed at adults. Now he’s brought his concept to a children’s book, illuminating how they too can train their inner chimp and learn life-changing habits.

In My Hidden Chimp, Peters suggests that the brain contains two parts: the human rational side, and the irrational chimp side – the part that leaps to conclusions, acts rashly, causes your emotions to rocket, or for a child, makes them feel grumpy, worried, naughty etc.

Written and illustrated in a simplistic comic book style, the book is an eye-opener for adult and child alike. It is also a workbook – so that the child works through the book using exercises rather than just reading and consuming. Peters aims to explain how to keep the chimp under control (although also, and very importantly, recognising those occasions when the chimp might be right – when it’s sending out danger signals). Moreover, he explains that the chimp is not a scapegoat for a child’s actions, nor an imaginary friend – this is a part of the brain for which the child is responsible and it’s about knowing when to tame it, and how to train it.

For example, when confronted with something a child doesn’t want to do – one part of the brain will be accepting of this, the other part is the chimp who will get upset and grumpy. Peters argues that the child always has a choice of which side to be on. And then he gives ten tips for how to help manage the chimp, and choose the positive side – these include smiling, saying sorry, being kind, talking about feelings etc. And always with examples and exercises for how to do this. It sounds almost obvious, but can be really helpful to have everyday emotions and reactions managed in this way.

silent guides

The accompanying book (although marketed as being the other way around with The Hidden Chimp as the companion title) is a hefty book called The Silent Guides, which is aimed at an adult audience, but particularly one that deals with children either in a parental or caring capacity. Peters’ writing style is easy-going and straightforward, and some of the guidance is fairly obvious. His conclusion too, is that the guidance won’t work for every child. But if you’re a fan of the basic concept, or want to learn some habits that will engender a change in irrational behaviours, then this is a good start. You can buy it here.

turn off live onTurn Off Live On by Vincent Vincent
A small pocket book (smaller than an ipad mini), with plenty of graphics, puzzles, and drawing space, this book aims to show how to live some of your life without your mobile phone. It’s a plea to go slow, to look around more, to avoid losing hours scrolling. While acknowledging a phone’s worth and pleasure, the author aims to show the reader how to unleash their creativity, feel better and escape from some of the negativity that the devices can promote, just for a little while.

Seeing a real opportunity here, I sought Teenager One, who was on the sofa scrolling through something on his phone (head down, posture bad – this is another thing Vincent talks about). So I tossed him this book and asked him for his opinion.

To be fair to Teenager One, I’m forever shoving books at him, so he has a high bar on which books grab him. This one did get an extended look in- although it was a step too far for him to dislodge himself from the sofa and find a pen to fill in some of the activities. But it did make him take some time away from the phone. So, full marks.

In each section there are activities to engage the reader. In the chapter on avoiding social media because of its ability to promote negative feelings, the book encourages self-awareness exercises, promoting self-belief and self-confidence, writing attributes about yourself and understanding what you like doing. The chapter on ‘train your brain’ aims to show how we defer to the phone too often, for example on finding somewhere on a map or not memorising phone numbers. There are code and map exercises to help. The book also contains exercises on mindfulness and relaxation, and quotes from current celebrities on positivity etc.

Although I feel that many teens will greet the book with a fair amount of disdain if given to them by a parent when they’re on their phone (as I did!), it could be a good tool to use for all the family to detox, and if slipped surreptitiously into a teen’s bedroom, may well hold some positive truths that they discover gradually.

A good message nicely packaged (black and white illustrations/graphics throughout). You can buy it here.

even superheroes make mistakesEven Superheroes Make Mistakes by Shelly Becker, illustrated by Eda Kaban
For the youngest member of the family, who may not yet be on their mobile phone, this fun picture book teaches a great lesson. That everyone makes mistakes, and what’s important is taking responsibility, saying sorry, learning from the error and moving on (and up!). From the team behind Even Superheroes Have Bad Days, this is a fun rhyming tale about an array of superheroes who make errors but ‘own’ their mistakes.

It’s very American in tone – the superheroes ‘goof up’ and ‘spiff up’ their hair, and some of their errors feel a little tenuous as if only there for the rhyme – they don’t clean their clothes, or get up on time, but the main thrust of the argument here is that they should ‘own’ their mistakes.

“If their rescue attempt was NOT super-clever,
they could stock up supplies and hide out FOREVER.”

My favourite rhyme comes near the end, when the author declares that what makes our heroes super is their ability to ‘fess up their mess-up’:

“Instead they remember perfection is rare,
And they choose super ways to respond when they err.”

The illustrations are great fun though – the superheroes based on ‘real’ ones, zooming through the air with capes a-flying, unleashing threads from their fingers, shooting lasers with their eyes – and making a mess of it. For this alone, it’ll be a winner with very young children who like their superheroes everywhere – even if they are teaching them good behaviours. But I think the rhyming was better in Even Superheroes Have Bad Days. Buy Even Superheroes Make Mistakes here.

The Light in the Dark

It’s the time of year when the days are getting longer, and the Christmas lights at teatime are just a memory. But with January weather in London, the evenings are still very dark. For some children (and adults), the darkness of winter brings sadness and even fear – dark can be scary for many – altering shapes in the darkness, the fumbling unknown of not being able to see, shadows springing unbidden. When I was little, I took great comfort in The Owl Who Was Afraid of the Dark by Jill Tomlinson, enjoying Plop’s discovery that other people like the dark for many different reasons. Dark was super, and kind, and exciting.

Four newer picture books aim to shine a light on the fear of darkness too. And they are all fantastic.

light in the night
The Light in the Night by Marie Voigt
Betty has no fear of the dark and enjoys bedtime for her bedtime stories. But when a Bear from one of her books comes to life, she must help him overcome his fear of the dark – and in turn he might help her too. On the surface, this is a simple book with adorable illustrations – a cuddly bear whose every expression shows on his face, a small intrepid child. And yet there is more depth – this is not just a book about conquering fears, making friends, or helping one another. The climax of the story draws out the notion that one has to try new things and this may entail showing incredible bravery in the face of darkness. Rewards come from adventure.

The ending is also particularly sweet and clever – the bear and Betty dance and sing back home; their fear masked by a togetherness in hope, and their shadows when they arrive home aren’t the scary shapeshifters of most fiction, but tall and proud elongated reflections. This pair have inner strength. Voigt’s illustrations feel animated – and each scene shows prescience in the story to come, as well as the character within. The pictures on Betty’s walls are of adventures, the bedtime book foreshadows the adventure she is to take, and the different illustrative perspectives of the woods show the reader when something familiar and normal can become scary and vice versa. Conquer your fears here.

the rabbit the dark and the biscuit tin
The Rabbit, the Dark and the Biscuit Tin by Nicola O’Byrne
A slightly different issue in this picture book with a lift the flap element, in that Rabbit just doesn’t want to go to bed. And if it doesn’t get dark, he won’t have to. So he traps the dark in a biscuit tin. The consequences, of course, are that Rabbit upsets a lot of other animals – the bats and owls and foxes. But the really excellent part of the book is the dialogue between Rabbit and the Dark, as the Dark tries to negotiate its way out of the tin. In the end, it’s Rabbit’s ability to empathise with others that makes him open the tin. This gradual awareness of the needs of others mirrors the development of a child – recognising others and feeling empathy for them.

O’Byrne cleverly uses her illustrations to mirror this point, highlighting Rabbit’s grumpiness and own desires with subtle use of ear positioning and body language, before the joy of doing things for others is shown all over Rabbit’s face.

The Dark is neatly personified in the illustrations too – a dark hand reaching out for a biscuit, but in the end the Dark is shown in its glory – it is necessary, and exciting, and rather wonderful. Open your own biscuit tin here.

elephant that ate the night
The Elephant that Ate the Night by Bing Bai, illustrations by Yuanyuan Shen
A not dissimilar theme in this Chinese tale of a dark mushroom forest and the night that grows over it at the end of every day. The baby animals are scared of being swallowed by the darkness, and invite Awu the elephant to swallow any lurking darkness himself. He does, and as he does, his stomach gets fuller, illustrated by a growing blackness across his grey skin. When he’s satisfied he pats his tummy and sleeps. But the animals soon realise that they need the darkness for sleeping, and they implore Awu to spit it back out.

The repetition of sounds and phrases make this a perfect bedtime read, and the quirkiness of the illustrations – the elephant’s pink toes, the colour palate of yellows and greys, the patterned trees and the animals’ teeth – make this stand out from the average picture book. It treads on the edge of fear, without being swallowed by it completely. Find your bravery in the shape of an elephant here.

king who banned the dark
The King Who Banned the Dark by Emily Haworth-Booth
This picture book came out earlier last year, and takes the premise of no darkness one step further. A prince who is afraid of the dark bans it completely upon becoming King, installing an artificial sun and enforcing anti-dark laws.

However, there is much more to this story than the fear of darkness. The King has to win over his people, persuading them why darkness is so terrible, and sustaining his argument. Manipulative marketing morphs to a slow brainwashing. But before long, the people start to revolt.

With pages that stimulate discussion on propaganda, and selling a story, as well as distortions of the truth, this is an up-to-the-minute picture book that deals with an age-old fear in a very modern way. It analyses what makes people happy, and how people can be manipulated to think they are happy with the way things are, as well as exploring freedom of speech, tyrannical rule, and of course, the power of darkness.

And the illustrations are different too – although almost all in shades of grey and yellow, there is careful thought behind light innovations – a lamp hat, the power of torches, an array of light shops, candelabra dripping with light – but also the scariness of the dark, the creeping shapes and shadows, the stealth behind cover of darkness, and also its magnificence. Buy your own princely beam of light here.

Humans

January seems like a good time to address the different things that make us human, and to show the differences between us.

humans
Humans: The Wide World Awaits by Susan Martineau, illustrated by Vicky Barker
The award-winning team behind Real-life Mysteries have produced a new series called Geographics, which aims to show intriguing geographical facts with dynamic infographics design.

Geographics: Humans certainly is appealing. A thin book with a sturdy paperback cover, the book is bright and colourful throughout. It is quirky too, in that this isn’t just a fact book of information, but aims to provide guidance too.

There is typical geography information, such as on the page entitled ‘Where We Live’, and this shows the world at night with the lights indicating population, and shows the most populated cities, and the least, and the spread of humans around coastlines and in the Northern hemisphere. Following pages have information on water, resources, transportation, power and inventions, but there is also guidance on recycling and communication.

This is a wonderful first approach to human geography, which despite its small size, reaches further than most – using its vibrancy to illuminate facts and the author’s emotional intelligence to promote the idea of being a global citizen, understanding and caring for the planet on which we live. I’m proud to have absorbed the information within easily, and have learnt facts including: more people have a mobile phone than a toilet, and Papua New Guinea has 841 living languages. You can buy it here.

i am human
It’s not just our impact on the Earth but our impact on each other. I am Human: A Book of Empathy by Susan Verde, art by Peter H Reynolds aims to explore, through simple illustrations and text, the idea of who we are inside ourselves – a person who is always learning, with dreams and hopes, but also one who makes mistakes and feels pain and fear and sadness. The third part of the book aims to show the choices available – to be kind and fair, to forgive and move forward – in essence to show empathy. The book is about being the best human you can be, reminding children that they are unique at the same time as belonging to the human race, in which there is familiarity.

Reynolds’ line drawings bring to life this manual for living. The people are diverse and different, yet similar in their thin legs and neat noses. They feel vivacious and active, even when they are blue in both feeling and colour:  fear is represented as a huge ladder stretching to the unknown, sadness is a boy sitting on a ledge – followed swiftly by him standing, arms outstretched, hope on his face as he makes a new choice. There is a wonderful empathy that Reynolds delineates in his expression.

In it’s ability to showcase both self-worth and caring for others, this serves as a good guide in both home and school, for children and adults. You can buy it here.

when I was a child
When I was a Child by Andy Stanton and David Litchfield
is a picturebook that also uses colour wisely, bursting with a zest for nature and life, as it aims to show how humans can embrace the world around them. Ostensibly a book about a child aiming to show her grandmother that the world is still magical, and that wonder still exists, this is also an exploration of imagination and curiosity bearing a subtle environmental message. The grandmother believes that her world is now grey, but through the child’s eyes, through her innocent wisdom, we see that what we have lost sight of as we grow older is still abundant if seen through the eyes of the child.

The prose is poetic: faces in raindrops and heartbeats in mountains, but once again it is the power of the illustrations that lifts the book. Litchfield brings his remarkable talent for different perspectives and clever use of light to insert his own magic on each spread. Whether it’s a parade of people in a sunrise, with the light flooding translucently through the leaves on the page, or the underwater fragmented light shimmer of a layered background as strange and wondrous horse fish swim through the river, there is both a lifting and lightness to the colourful illustrations. Each drawing pulsates with imagination in a kind of modern dreamlike wonderland, the book getting more and more fantastical as it progresses.

This is an enchanting book about humanity – encouraging intergenerational relationships, wonder in the world around us, and also the power of the imagination to soar and grow. A rainbow of images and prose. You can buy it here .

human body
The Human Body: A Pop-up Guide to Anatomy by Richard Walker, illustrated by Rachel Caldwell
Lastly, it would not be right to explore humans and humanity without one in-depth look inside the body.  This comprehensive, somewhat gruesome, guide to the human body invites the reader to venture on a real post-mortem examination, cleverly using paper engineering so that the reader can look beneath body parts – my favourite section definitely the abdomen, in which you can open up the body to see the kidneys and small intestine from different angles.

The illustrations feel old-school, traditional, multi-layered in their detail (each is highly captioned to show which body part is which), and also with instruments pencil-sketched too, so that the scalpel and tweezers lie happily next to the body. The book explains the different systems of the body – circulatory, respiratory etc, with keen observation and elucidation. Sentences are short and sweet, keeping it simple without numerous subclauses interrupting the information, and it feels matter-of-fact and clear.

You can lift the blood spatter to see it under a microscope, or open the heart to see how it works. Each tooth has been extracted so that they can be labelled, and the thorax can be opened in many layers to explore the ribs, lungs and heart. There’s even opportunity to remove the skin from the upper arm and shoulder to see the muscles underneath. This is a thoroughly enjoyable way to be educated on the human body and how it works, and a beautifully stylised well-thought-out book. You can buy it here .

Quick Gift Guide: Books

Are you still stuck for Christmas gifts? Perhaps it’s not for Christmas, but a seasonal present. I’m always pleased to receive a book – and trust me I already have a few! Here are some eclectic titles that have nothing to do with Christmas, which various family members might like:

the boy and the bear
For the very young:
The Boy and the Bear by Tracey Corderoy and Sarah Massini
There’s a wintry feel with this delightful picture book about unlikely friendship, and patience. With glowing silver snowflakes on the cover, and a boy in a woolly hat holding hands with an adorable bear, the book gives a warm fuzzy feeling from the start. The story has an old-fashioned timeless feel, the boy running in the countryside flying a paper aeroplane with satchel swinging from his hip. There is not a screen in sight. Nor a friend either. But there is a shy bear. Although seemingly incompatible (in the most adorable ways), the pair strike a friendship, which has to take a hiatus for hibernation. The matching of text to illustration strikes perfection here. There is humour, pathos, a conveyance of the passing of time, and so much emotion. I suggested this for the very young, but if you’re young at heart, you’ll love this too. An absolute gem of a picturebook. You can buy it here.

Phoebe and Her Unicorn

For the unicorn-obsessed (and others)
Phoebe and Her Unicorn by Dana Simpson (7+)
This glittery pink full length comic strip novel tells a cute story in simple sharp lines, with jokes a-plenty, and will enthral youngsters with its tale of Phoebe and her vain mythical animal companion. Phoebe skips a rock across a pond and accidentally hits a unicorn in the face. The unicorn, until then completely absorbed in its own reflection, is thankful for the distraction and grants Phoebe a wish. She wishes for the unicorn, Marigold Heavenly Nostrils, to be her obligatory best friend. And thus the adventures begin. As you’ve noticed from the name of the unicorn, there’s more than a hint of mischief here, but the book also bears a special message about overcoming loneliness and finding one’s own strengths and virtues. This is a lot of fun, and because the comic strip maintains focus on the key characters rather than deviating too much into the landscape, and the strips are self-contained, the story is easy to follow for reluctant readers. The newest full length comic strip title is Phoebe and Her Unicorn in Unicorn Theater. Sweet and sugary, and reminiscent of My Little Pony with a bit of attitude, this is a US title now available here.

the ink house
For the appreciative art fan:
The Ink House by Rory Dobner (8+)
This isn’t a usual picture book. More a unique curiosity through the artist’s mind as he seeks to explore the insides of The Ink House, an intricately designed mansion built on a pool of ink, in which a party of animals is due to take place, after the human resident takes off in a hot air balloon to search for further knickknacks to add to his treasured collection.

The illustrations, in ink of course, are amazingly detailed and stunningly imagined. There’s a darkness, a gothic tendency in the drawings, and the feeling is that each stroke is penned as delicately as if he were crafting a poem. The story isn’t really a story – just a menagerie of animals within a setting, and the scenes in which Dobner showcases the house in most detail work best. The mouse on the desk with piles of books, clocks, candle, quill pen; the ape in armchair with guitar, old-fashioned tea set, and gramophone showcases the neat juxtaposition between old and new, distorting one’s expectations and reality; the horses in the tiled hallway complete with pillars and a view onto the gardens. The artwork is disturbing, disjointed and wonderful, justifying the purchase even if the text is a little clunky. My advice – add your own words to the pictures, and tell the story in your head. You can buy it here.

absolutely everything

For everyone:
Absolutely Everything by Christopher Lloyd, illustrated by Andy Forshaw
The author of this conversational tome is nothing if not ambitious. The contents of this nonfiction narrative span from the Big Bang through dinosaurs, homo sapiens, ancient civilisations, the classical empires to the medieval, age of exploration, revolutions, wars and onwards. Everything in fact. The tone is avuncular, as if you’ve asked a favourite relative to let loose – tell me about the ancient Greeks, Chris…In this chapter, Lloyd starts with an anecdote about an olive, which merges into why olive oil was so precious, then onto slaves, democracy and war…you can see how the narrative flows from one idea to another, incorporating facts, events and stories. Each section is colour-coded for easy reference and there are colour visuals throughout, from illustrations adorning the text to photos, maps, timelines etc. There’s a nice linear progression to the book, an understanding of how one thing in history leads to another (although this is definitely Western civilisation’s history), and an over-riding infectious enthusiasm to explore how societies linked up, how the world became global. Engrossing and all-encompassing. Give as a gift, and keep a copy for yourself. The sort of book to stop you getting bored in the holidays. You can buy it here.

A Very Christmas Roundup

how winston delivered ChristmasThe first book on your radar for Christmas should be How Winston Delivered Christmas by Alex T Smith. This is the most sumptuous book, but a word of warning, you need to give this present early. The neat conceit is that the story has been written in 24 and a half chapters, one chapter to share every day in the lead up to Christmas – ending with a final special story time for Christmas morning. Now, I like advent calendars with chocolate windows, but a book with a story behind every window is even better. The story is about Winston, a homeless young mouse with an important mission, and a special message about the joy of little kindnesses rather than just the material side of the festivities.

But more than just a story, there are also activities throughout, such as writing a letter to Father Christmas, making Christmas cards, a recipe for mince pies and so on – all the traditional things a family might do in the run up to the holiday season, but here with a neat tie-in to the story. There are also ideas that might be new – but feel traditional: making an orange pomander, stained-glass window biscuits, and even a pompom robin.

Not only are the activities fun, easy and related to the season and story, the story itself combines all the attractive tropes of Christmas narratives – the old-fashioned department store, gingerbread men, a nativity scene, toys and snow. And of course, there’s a happy ending and the lyrics of carols at the end.

This is a perfect Christmas book, lovingly produced with a green bookmark ribbon, a fabric spine, and beautiful colour illustrations, through which the warmth of happiness radiates – a lit shop window, a kitchen all a-glow, a dolls’ house, headlights in the snow. Magical and heartwarming. You can buy it here.

pick a pine tree
If you’re looking for a picturebook, there is a glut of tie-ins but for something original, Pick a Pine Tree by Patricia Toht, illustrated by Jarvis might tick the box. It’s also suitable for the run-in to Christmas itself, being all about choosing and decorating a tree. It’s unabashedly Christmassy, with nothing held back in its glorious rhyming list of the things needed to turn a pine into a Christmas tree. The text is magical in itself, a gentle rhythm that speeds up with the excitement of Christmas, but the illustrations imbue the book with light and warmth again, whether it’s the brightness of the children’s faces around the tree, or the up-close inside tree drawing of baubles, paper angel dolls and pine needles. You can buy it here.

jingle spells
Another book that seems to fall in between the start of autumn and Christmas itself is Jingle Spells by James Brown, a rather delicious mash up of Halloween and Christmas, as Trixie the witch prefers Christmas to Halloween, although her fellow witches think that’s strange, and the Christmas Elves judge her on her appearance and reputation (fearful of tricksy witches). In the end, Trixie helps the elves and Santa get over their winter colds with a warming potion, and they help her to bring Christmas to everyone. Heartfelt, and gloriously illustrated with lots of colour – an emphasis on red and yellow against a blue background helping to bring that magical Christmas warmth again. You can buy it here.

very corgi christmas
Royalty is all the rage at the moment, with a King in waiting, a new baby on the way, and the memory of a couple of weddings this year. But, if you prefer your royalty corgi style, then A Very Corgi Christmas by Sam Hay, illustrated by Loretta Schauer will suit. It tells the simple story of the youngest corgi – enthralled with the rush and excitement of Christmas – who gets lost in London and befriended by a more worldly dog. The book works as a paean to London, showcasing an illustration of a dazzling silhouetted London skyline through a window before honing in on the corgi experiencing Piccadilly Circus (a bit too bright for her), a London bus, the London Eye, Big Ben unscaffolded and a London theatre. Even a London litter bin is given central stage. There are plenty of union jacks too – this is a London Christmas to the top of the tree. And of course a happy ending. You can buy it here.

sammy claus
From dogs to cats, Sammy Claws: The Christmas Cat by Lucy Rowland and Paula Bowles understands a cat’s life. Sammy Claws will sleep anywhere, but when he falls asleep in a box on Christmas Eve, he finds himself wrapped in a present and due for delivery with no way of telling Santa of the mix-up. Hiding in his box, Sammy hears of Bad Billy’s and Mischievous May’s plans to steal Santa’s Christmas presents, and finds that yowling fiercely and jumping out can quite seriously shock robbers. This is a delightful Christmas rhyming tale, and although it borrows heavily on other picture books in which canny animals outwit stupid robbers, there is enough dastardly action and colourful Christmassy illustrations to win over every child. At its centre sits a cat with a huge personality. Watch out for smart touches in the illustrations such as Santa’s sleigh goggles, clever rhyming in a bouncy lively text, and the neat ending too. You can buy it here.

how to hide a lion at christmas
If you do like tie-ins, How to Hide a Lion at Christmas by Helen Stephens retains the magic of the original in this Christmas story of Iris going to visit family for Christmas and being made to leave the lion behind – because he is a little large and might offend their hosts. Many parents have negotiated with children about leaving toys home when they travel, and this is a rather sweet tale of the lion deciding to follow of his own accord. With trains, snow, carol singers and Father Christmas, this also brings to mind old-fashioned Christmases. Stephens has an astute understanding of how to draw her lion to look realistic (reclining on a tree) but also to make him naturally fit within the domestic sphere too – this lion always reminds me of The Tiger Who Came to Tea – I wonder who would get all the Christmas dinner if they were sat at the same table. You can buy it here.

the snowman
If you’re revisiting classics, the key title has to be The Snowman by Michael Morpurgo, illustrated by Robin Shaw. Yes, this is based upon the original story and drawings from Raymond Briggs, but to mark the 40th anniversary of the original picture book, this year the publishers have released a brand new novel. At first you may ponder why such a re-imagining is necessary, but there is a simple continuity in Morpurgo’s version, a nod to modern sensibilities, and an understanding of the gentle care it needs to revisit this classic Christmas tale.

The original Snowman picture book is wordless and doesn’t feature Father Christmas as a character, but Morpurgo has merged the collective memory of the book and animation into his new story, imagining a boy named James with a stutter who takes a magical Christmas Eve flight with his Snowman to a party, where he does meet Father Christmas. In Morpurgo’s version there is the introduction of a Grandma figure, who not only reads The Snowman to James but eventually takes flight with him too. It’s an interesting dynamic to add to the tale, showing the inter-generational relationships that exist, and profiling how James and his grandmother relate to each other. Nice touches include Brussels sprout buttons for the Snowman, and the newly found confidence James develops. I would quibble that some of the Christmas gifts feel dated already, but the gentle tone sits nicely alongside the original. Extras at the back include instructions on how to make the perfect snowman. You can buy it here.

the night i met father christmas
Lastly, The Night I Met Father Christmas by Ben Miller, the comedian, is a mash up between A Christmas Carol and Elf. A small boy with avid curiosity wants to know how Father Christmas became Father Christmas. When he meets him on Christmas Eve, he hears the story from the man (or rather elf) himself – a story within a story format. The tale he recounts is about the elf Torvil, now miserly and mean, who is shown Christmas past, present and future by red-nosed reindeers and magic trees. It’s a pure spin off from Dickens, but told in a spritely jovial way with old-fashioned hot chocolate warmth. As well as the first person narration from the small boy, and the third person narration of Torvil’s story, there are also narrative asides, which seemingly may come from Torvil or the boy, but feel much more as if they come from Miller – hoping the reader never has an accident, waxing lyrical on the joys of sled-rides. It jolts the reader slightly from the narrative, but the whole is so easy to read, so joyful and formulaic (how could it not be, following past, present and future), that it feels familiar and new at the same time. I read an early proof so couldn’t see the illustrations, but the publishers promise illustrations throughout from Danielle Terrazini. Look out for an extract of the book on my blog in early December. You can buy it here. Happy Christmas shopping.

NNFN Jewish Foods and Festivals

The theme for this year’s National Non-Fiction November is ‘Food and Festivals Around the World’. I couldn’t help but jump onto the bandwagon with a look at Jewish festivals and their food, seeing as every festival has a distinctive and mainly yummy food associated with it.

rise and shine
Shabbat falls every week on a Friday night and is the time for families to come together to share a meal. The food most associated with this is challah – a braided bread. Rise and Shine: A Challah-Day Tale by Karen Ostrove, illustrated by Kimberly Scott, tells the tale of when Sammy and Sophie find a crumpled bit of paper in an old cooking apron but can’t read the writing. Their grandmother explains it’s a recipe in Yiddish for baking challah, and with the help of family members, they bake it in time for Shabbat. This sweet story exemplifies the importance of inter-generational activities, cultural inheritance, and of course the joy to be found in baking bread. You can buy it here.

whats the buzz
At the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashana, it is customary to celebrate the wish for a sweet new year by eating sweet foods, in particular dipping apple in honey. This could also be tzimmes (typically a sweetened dish of carrots), or my favourite, the honey cake. Of course there’d be no honey without bees, and What’s the Buzz? Honey for a Sweet New Year by Allison Maile Ofanansky, photographs by Eliyahu Alpern, takes the reader for a photographic tour around a bee farm, exploring how honey is extracted from the honeycomb and how a hive operates. A good non-fiction resource, there’s a fun fact section at the end.

all of a kind family hanukkah
Hanukkah lasts for eight days, and is known as the Festival of Lights, but most children welcome it for its glut of doughnuts. Jewish people typically eat foods fried in oil, such as latkes and doughnuts, to celebrate the miracle of the oil lamp and the rededication of the temple in Jerusalem. However, it’s not krispy kremes but a special type of doughnut called sufganiot, which the Jewish bakeries sell. Gooey jam inside, sprinkles of sugar on the outside – these small round treats are light and fluffy. Just published this year, All-of-a-Kind Family Hanukkah by Emily Jenkins, illustrated by Paul O Zelinsky takes the All-of-a-Kind Family from the original book by Sydney Taylor, set at the turn of the last century in New York, and revisits them in 1912 in the tenements of the Lower East Side of NYC as Hanukkah approaches. This beautiful narrative gives a significance to the immigrant experience as it explores the sights and sounds of Jewish immigrant family, and shows how the cultural customs have lasted. You can buy it here.

purim superhero
Purim is a popular holiday – a time of dressing up and play-acting and the retelling of the story of Esther, who saved the Jewish people in ancient Persia. The hamantaschen is the food of choice, a triangular-shaped pastry or biscuit filled with poppy seeds or jam (and nowadays even chocolate) that is said to represent the hat of the baddie in Esther’s story. Perhaps representation can feel a little thin in some Jewish children’s books. The Purim Superhero by Elisabeth Kushner, illustrated by Mike Byrne, focusses more on the costumes than the food of Purim, but strikes an important message for our times. Nate wants to dress as an alien for Purim but all his friends are going as superheroes. Taking inspiration from Esther, as well as from his two dads, he devises a super alien costume. This is a bright and happy picture book, which not only shows what a modern family does at Purim, but also features a non-traditional family. You can buy it here.

sweet passover
In the spring, and hovering around the same time as Easter, is the Jewish festival of Passover. Celebrating the story of the Israelites fleeing Egypt (the Exodus), the narrative explains how they didn’t have enough time to bake bread for the journey, and so left with bread that wasn’t risen – matzah. Today, Jewish people celebrate with a whole selection of symbolic foods on the table during the telling of the story at the holiday meal – the seder. But matzah is always the first food that comes to mind, mainly because most people dislike the ‘cardboard’ like texture of the crackers. This sentiment is echoed by Miriam in A Sweet Passover by Leslea Newman, illustrated by David Slonim. By the last day of this eight-day festival, Miriam is “sick, sick, sick of matzah” despite having eaten it with a whole variety of spreads including chocolate, jam, cheese, tuna and egg. Her grandfather encourages her to try his matzah brie – like French toast but with matzah instead of bread. The book is almost as delicious as matzah brie itself, managing to slip in the exodus story and make insightful little comments too.

Up and Away: The Skies

How often do we look up to the skies? More and more we stretch our necks downwards to look at our phones and fail to take in what’s at eye level. But even rarer is for us to look skywards. These five wonderful non-fiction titles, and one picturebook for children, explore the world above our heads – both in the day, and at night-time.

the skies above my eyesThe Skies Above My Eyes by Charlotte Guillain, illustrated by Yuval Zommer

A follow up title to the hugely popular The Street Beneath My Feet, this is a book that unfolds concertina style to explore the expanse of space above our heads. Very beautifully, the two sides follow different paths: one is countryside/rural-based in that a girl is seen lying on her back staring up through the trees, and looking at migrating birds, spiders ballooning, cloud formations and up to the Solar System past the Northern Lights. On the converse side, which is technologically-based, the girl is seen staring up past skyscrapers, to helicopters, aeroplanes, weather balloons and space rockets into the Solar System. With measurements given along the chart, and information about the atmosphere, history and physics, this is a fascinating guide to the skies above us, and all that they contain.

The book folds out to a whopping 2.5 metres tall – I cannot hold it up fully when standing, but laid out along a school corridor or a living room, this is a wonderful way to explore non-fiction. Zommer’s illustrations lend themselves both to the factual element – his rocket is intricate and cleverly shadowed, but also to the whimsical, with a floating umbrella Mary Poppins style. A well-designed, intriguing collaboration – this is exactly how to fascinate children with the world around us. You can buy it here.

cat's guide to the night skyA Cat’s Guide to the Night Sky by Stuart Atkinson, illustrations by Brendan Kearney

A more traditional guide to astronomy and the night sky in this well-designed and attractive non-fiction book. Atkinson’s long experience of writing about space and astronomy is apparent in the way that he distils tricky ideas into simple sentences, exploring in a down-to-earth way how to star gaze. Beginning with keeping safe outdoors, the book (and its guide Felicity the Cat) takes the reader through the different seasons – the best time of year to view particular constellations and what the reader should be looking for, with explanation about the makeup of stars, the phases of the Moon, the Northern Lights and much more. Atkinson is matter-of-fact about what the constellations really look like, and how to try to view a planet, but Felicity the Cat adds nice philosophical touches, such as wondering if anyone is looking back at her too.

The graphics are excellent, both the phases of the Moon and the constellations well-delineated, and there’s a feeling of immense friendliness and warmth in the domestic images of garden viewing platforms, as well as added humour with Felicity, who dresses according to the season. Includes a glossary and index. Age 7+ You can buy it here.

 

starry skiesStarry Skies by Samantha Chagollan and Nila Aye

For younger children interested in the shapes and patterns made by the stars, this is an elegant and beautiful tactile little hardback with stiff board pages. A die-cut on the cover with an uncomplicated yellow star and a teddy bear with stars for eyes showcases the target age group and the simplicity of the graphics within. The author explains that the positions of the stars tell a story, and each double spread includes a constellation with an imaginative narrative sentence alongside: Ursa Major and minor are seen when ‘Sophia’ and her mom [sic] take a forest path, Pegasus is shown alongside ‘Leah’ on horseback ready to spread her wings and fly. The two-colour scheme of yellow and black works well to really illuminate the constellations, and the book is hardy and practical for taking outside. Age 4+ Stargaze here.

 

 

 

voyage through spaceVoyage Through Space by Katy Flint, illustrated by Cornelia Li

Appealing on another level with a glow-in-the-dark fold out poster of the solar system (nicely attached and easily detached to the book with a perforated edge), is this straightforward but rather cartoonishly illustrated information book about the solar system. Each planet is afforded a double spread – with lovely illustrations of a young female astronaut and her dog peering at each planet. A glare is carefully shaded onto her mask, and she wears glasses near the sun – our courageous astronaut is seen landing on the Moon and optimistically Mars – other illustrations are even more supposed, such as when she views the asteroid belt sitting upon one of the orbiting rocks. But the text is fact-based – explaining definitions, measurements and scientists’ hypotheses.

The colour palette is particularly alluring – Neptune is cast in almost phosphorescent blue, Saturn a golden glow, Mars a rusty brown-red. Captions and annotations help to explore the full-page images, and although short, this is a great introduction to the solar system for intrepid space explorers. Age 5+. You can buy it here.

 

planetariumWelcome to the Museum: Planetarium by Chris Wormell and Raman Prinja

Planetarium is the latest in the Welcome to the Museum series, this time in conjunction with the Science Museum. Wormell’s last collaboration in this series was on Dinosaurium, whose lavishly illustrated creatures set a high bench mark for illustrated non-fiction. This tome, exploring the Solar System, is no less delightful or comprehensive, and maintains the sophisticated authoritative tone of the rest of the series.

Written by Raman Prinja, a Professor of Astrophysics at UCL, the book aims to go further than many space information books for children, starting with an explanation of radiation and light and traversing through the history of astronomy before navigating the Solar System, star life cycles and black holes. The end of the book takes in the incomprehensibility of huge superclusters and Universe expansion.

To accompany these mind-bogging theories, facts and wonders, Wormell’s power of intricate and detailed illustration has been utilised to its full extent. The detailed drawings of telescopes are like dioramas on the page, his intricate etchings of solar flares and coronal loops feel almost three-dimensional in their depiction. This is not an easy book – there is science galore and difficult concepts, but there is a handsome clarity to the text and a sense of wonder that imbues the science behind the illustrations. There’s also some wonderful prose writing:

“They [black holes] can’t be seen, but if a human got too close to one, they would be sucked in by its gravitational pull, stretched out like spaghetti and incinerated in a wall of fire!”

For space fans and astronomy maestros this is one outsized book they’ll yearn to devour. 8+ years and beyond. Explore the museum here.

the space trainThe Space Train by Maudie-Powell Tuck, illustrated by Karl James Mountford

I’ve added a picture book to my ‘skies’ blogpost because often the information and facts we absorb on a topic lead us to daydream about our own or others’ adventures in that area. And because quite often, even though a children’s ‘knowledge’ topic at school may revolve around learning facts, they will often spark off into a piece of creative writing, and this picture book ticks all the boxes in providing educational content, inspiration, imagination and energy. The Space Train is a wonderful lift-the-flap adventure about a boy and his grandma in the future and their attempts to rebuild the space train – a vehicle that propels through space faster than a rocket.

Not only is this a fun and cheeky adventure, but it is richly illustrated with a bold colour palette and a super eye for detail. There are hidden flaps and holes to peek through, and a thrilling mind-whirling combination of ‘sciencey’ words, make-believe and the power of grit and determination, as well as a wonderful relationship between grandparent and child. When Jakob and Granny attempt to fix the old space train, they have to put together the thrusters and combustion chamber by riveting and welding. But there’s intergalactic imagination too – with a Toolbot, a robot chicken, an intergalactic buffet car, an observation deck and much much more. This is an imagined future universe of fun and adventure, but complete with a modern, energetic engineer Granny and brilliantly drawn full page illustrations of what it might be like to live in a future space station. Let your imagination soar here.

Peter Pan by JM Barrie, retold in rhyme by Caryl Hart, illustrated by Sarah Warburton

Peter PanI have a confession to make. I decided to read the worthy classic Peter Pan by JM Barrie to my first child at bedtime one year and picked out an exceptionally beautiful edition of the original. And yet a few pages in, I found myself précising the text, rewording it, changing sentences and skipping bits – the prose just wasn’t as captivating as I thought it should be. It had all the elements in the plot – removable shadows, pirates with hooks, crocodiles with clocks and fairies with attitude, yet it didn’t zing along.

So when this latest version came through the post, I wished that it had arrived years earlier, but settled for reading it to the youngest child instead. What a delight. Hart has used her extensive experience in rhyming picture books to retell the story in her own energetic style, and it is a joy to read aloud:

“Our tale begins in London
in a house on Bloomsbury Street.
Inside there lived a family,
the nicest you could meet.”

Hart not only retells the story, but imbues it with a narrator’s warmth, gently guiding the readers as Peter guides Wendy through the sky. There’s much plot and little description, but the setting is neatly filled in with Warburton’s filmic illustrations, rendering the mermaids mischievous with a flick of an eyebrow, the pirates both comedic and threatening with their sometime mean, sometime dozy expressions, and their excessive facial hair.

With pure pantomime timing, Hart executes all the finer details of the plot, and the familiar phrases – as children the land over clap their hands to save Tinkerbell, and there is much walking the plank, the introduction of the ‘Wendy’ house, and of course lots of fighting. But she also pulls out the dramatic pantomime hilarity of the story – Pan poking Hook from behind, then inciting him to climb the crow’s nest where he immediately feels dizzy. Child readers and listeners will be both engrossed with the fast-paced plot but also cheered with the numerous nods to win their humour. Hart also makes use of much onomatopoeia, building drama wherever possible with the ticks of the clock and the snaps of the crocodile, the canon’s boom and the water’s splosh.

The text is split neatly into four line verses, at times each illustrated separately, and sometimes illustrated with a full double page spread landscape. The production is superb – the pages are lush and thick, the colour bursting from the page in wondrous detail – the last spread has Peter almost silhouetted on a rock whilst in the foreground Tinkerbell literally shines and the flowers seem luminous in her wake. Other spreads delight with detail – the pirate ship, but also the lost boys’ underground home with its hammocks, swinging lanterns and shelves of curiosity. This is one you read to a child nestled in your arms – and with a ribbon bookmark and foiled jacket, you’ll both feel spoiled and all set for winter nights in – just keep the windows closed:

“They’d slipped out through the window,
quite ignoring Nana’s warning.
“Second to the right!” they cried.
“Then straight on until morning!”

Find your own way to Neverland here.