picturebooks

Halloween Round Up

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


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

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


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

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


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


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

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


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

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


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


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


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

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

The Lost Words by Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Books in Books for Libraries Week

For #librariesweek, a few books about books. Because we are living in a time of library cuts, librarian redundancies, and struggling independent booksellers, children’s authors are doing more and more to celebrate not only their nostalgia for the old days of libraries, but also a burgeoning belief that they must fight to uphold every child’s right to library access in the here and now.


Madeline Finn and the Library Dog by Lisa Papp

This is a reassuring book for those readers who haven’t quite grasped the fundamentals yet, or who are struggling with their confidence. Madeline does not like to read, especially out loud, for fear of humiliation and ridicule, but she really wants to earn a star at school rather than just a ‘keep trying’ sticker. She does have a great role model in her mother, who takes her to the library, and keeps her supplied with an abundant pile of books. When the librarian suggests that Madeline read out loud to a dog, rather than a human, Madeline begins to see the merit in trying, and before long her reading abilities have caught up with her ambition.

Inspired by real-life programmes of incentivising children to read with ‘Read-to-Dogs’ sessions in order to build readers’ confidence, this is a worthy and also admirable little read.

The book deserves a mention, not only for the quality of the storytelling, but also for the clear, well-spaced text against a cream-tinted background, which provides an ease on the eye for emerging readers. The illustrations are fitting – soft, expressive, and with a winsome collection of scenes from Madeline’s life – from riding her bike, to struggling over her books, to swinging in the garden, and staring out the window, all with an ever-present favourite soft toy. It creates a rounded picture of Madeline, perfect for empathy. The dogs are all cute and fluffy, or sleek and loyal, and delighted my listeners with the several different breeds depicted, and the dogs’ loving, attentive eyes. You can buy it here.


Franklin’s Flying Bookshop by Jen Campbell, illustrated by Kate Harnett

Jen Campbell takes her bookish book one step further, with a dragon protagonist who loves to read aloud. Perhaps he needs a dog, for this dragon can find no one to read to (the people he encounters run away in fear). Then he meets an inquisitive book-loving girl called Luna, who isn’t afraid because she has read about dragons in books, and so they come up with a plan to enable the sharing of books as widely as possible – a flying bookshop on top of a dragon.

If the concept sounds a little strange, it is – but it fits with the quirky whimsy of this book, which uses the bulk of its prose to extort the virtues of reading (expanding knowledge and extending imagination) by creating a higgledy piggedly mix of what the dragon and the girl bump into within the books in their reading sessions, from roller skating and King Arthur to kung fu and pirates, carol singing and anteaters.

This is quite literally drawn out in Katie Harnett’s illustrations of ant-eaters juggling, kungfu bats and mice moving furniture. The illustrations feel dreamy and timeless, with pencil colouring textures and shading and painstaking patterning – particularly the horseshoes on the dragon’s green skin.

The book speaks to unusual friendships, accepting others who may have only kind intentions despite threatening appearances, and the power of books. You can purchase it here.


Luna Loves Library Day by Joseph Coelho and Fiona Lumbers

This Luna is more than just a girl who loves the library. She has a special reason for loving the library, and it’s because her Dad waits for her there, and together they explore the books. Although not explicitly stated, Luna’s mother and father are separated and so this is the time she spends with her father. In a story within the story, (a physical inset), a not-so-hidden metaphor for Luna’s family situation, the enduring love for a child is explored using trolls and mermaids, despite the splitting of the family unit.

So, of course this is a book about dealing with family breakup, and yet it will appeal to all, for its illustrations are warm, affectionate, colourful and brimming with life and imagination. Lumbers depicts the library books coming to life – with vines sprouting from one book, bugs from another, and magic tricks busting from a magic book.

More than this though, is the attention to detail in the depiction of the library: the clever welcoming posters in the foyer, the comfortable chairs, the abundance of books, and the set up, which shows a spacious, well-lit modern library with a self-checkout. Lumbers and Coelho are at pains to depict not a fanciful idealisation of libraries and family life, but a confrontation of where we are and how we can still find happiness and hope within it. (Although I wish my local library was as well-lit and stocked).

Lastly, and by no means least, are the people depicted within the book. Lumbers and Coelho tick all boxes here, both the diverse mix of people using the library, but also in the comfort and ease of the body language – the children flopped over chairs, or tucked up tight, others with legs akimbo, hair wild and smiley faces. But the best – the armchair hug with Dad. You can almost feel it. You can buy it here.

 

 

 

When I Grow Up: A Guest Blog from Steve Antony

A few years ago, I and my daughter were lucky enough to go and see the show Matilda. Ever since, a popular song in our house has been ‘When I Grow Up’, both for the visual stimuli it recalls upon hearing it (thanks to the wonderful vivacity of the show), but also because of the sentiments expressed. Children can access its dreams of the future – its playfulness with projected children’s ideas of adulthood – being free of restrictions yet also not shackled by responsibility, and for adults there is a glint of nostalgia for the children they once were, as well as the reminder that we do have certain freedoms.

So, it was with great glee that I saw the lyrics being published as a children’s picture book, When I Grow Up by Tim Minchin, illustrated with the clever, observant and witty illustrations of Steve Antony. Not only does Antony express the vibrancy of the show, the emotion of the words, and the dream-like quality of the implications while keeping it real, but he also displays his trademark incidental inclusion – not just of children of all different backgrounds and abilities, but also subtle cultural allusions too. Look closely to find the Statue of Liberty holding aloft an ice cream, Mr Panda’s doughnuts, a sketch of Roald Dahl and more. Below, Steve Antony explains how the book came about, and the pressures of illustrating such an iconic song.

It’s 4AM. I am sat cross-legged on the my office floor surrounded by pencil shavings, staring at a blank piece of paper. I can recall that moment vividly.

I can recall another moment, too. The email via my literary agent Elizabeth Roy was totally out of the blue. A complete and utter surprise. I read it again and again. Tim Minchin would like to know if you might be interested in illustrating a picture book adaptation of WHEN I GROW UP from the hit musical Matilda.

The hard-to-explain thing is that I’d been waiting years for something like this without knowing exactly what ‘this thing I was waiting for’ was. A dream collaboration in every sense. WHEN I GROW UP would become my first illustrator-only picture book, and I couldn’t wait to get started.

I listened to the song over and over and over again. The more I listened to the song, the more I tried to draw how it made me feel. Wistful. Nostalgic. A bit sad. A bit happy. Exhilarated. Joyous. Hopeful. So many emotions. How can I convey all these emotions in one visual narrative?

I read and reread the song’s text several times over, without the piano, and tried imagining what ‘watching cartoons until your eyes go square’ or ‘eating sweets every day on the way to work’ or ‘fighting the monsters under your bed’ might look like. How will I take all these separate moments and seamlessly string them all together?

I also considered how I might incorporate the Matilda we all know and love into the book. Matilda, one of the most loved children’s books of all time. Can I even do that, and would that really be the best approach?

When I Grow Up is an incredibly popular song. It’s arguably the best, most iconic song from the musical Matilda and practically every child seems to know it off by heart, probably because it’s sang in schools up and down the country. How will I possibly do the song justice?

Slowly but surely, I began to realise just how challenging this would be. The challenge wasn’t illustrating Tim’s words. The challenge was adapting his words into a visual story while also capturing the essence of the song. Colours was another issue, in part because of my red-green colour blindness, but I’ll save that for another blog.

I tried using animal characters, but that didn’t work. I tried using adults, but that didn’t work either. I tried a drawing a dream sequence; that kind of worked but not quite. I tried drawing a dual narrative: an adult’s perspective and a child’s perspective. Too complicated. The one thing I didn’t do was draw ‘Matilda‘. There’s no way I can copy Quentin’s and it just didn’t feel right to draw a ‘new version’.

So many questions. So many options. Time was ticking away. I was surrounded by crumpled paper. Pencil shavings everywhere. Imposter syndrome began to creep in.

The problem was this. I was trying too hard. I wasn’t having fun. So I changed my approach. I began imagining how the child version of me would illustrate Tim’s song. In doing so I remembered how I used to fantasise about growing up: being able to stay up late, go on shopping sprees in Toys R Us, eat and drink whatever I want, whenever I want.

For me, When I Grow Up became about remembering that eagerness, that sense of ‘anything-is-possible’ hope and imagination we all once had as a child before getting bogged down with all our grown-up responsibilities. I would most definitely eat treats every day, climb the tallest trees and stay up late every night.

Speaking of which, it’s midnight. The book is now published. I couldn’t be happier with it. Tomorrow I’ll be onstage at Leicester Square theatre alongside Tim Minchin. Twitter’s gone a bit mental and I’m ‘liking’ and retweeting when really I should really be sleeping. Tim’s obviously noticed this because he just tweeted me: “Oi. Get to bed. Big weekend ahead.” He’s right. I’m off to bed. Goodnight.

With huge thanks to Steve Antony for making time in his schedule to write this for me. And you can buy your own copy of the book here.

You Choose in Space

Whenever I sneak a look at the top ten most borrowed books in the school library, there’s one book that always features. You Choose by Pippa Goodhart, illustrated by Nick Sharratt is that dream of a book: children can read it over and over again, huddled around its pages with their friends, changing the narrative each time, reinventing the story in multiple ways, daydreaming their future. After a while, there is even a comforting familiarity about the illustrations. Just this week, some Year 3 pupils were going through the book making choices based on how much money their character had! So, it was with open arms that I embraced the new title, You Choose in Space. Whether it’s which alien you would befriend, what mode of transport you would use, or which freaky food you’d eat for your space snacks, the book has everything for a fun-filled interactive space adventure. Just as the original, the pages are packed with vibrant, colourful, happy images, giving full boost to any child’s imagination. It’s amazing to think that the original premise was rejected by publishers – for many children, You Choose has been their introduction to books. So, to turn the world on its head, I didn’t ask readers what they would choose in space, I asked Pippa and Nick. Here, are their choices for You Choose in Space:

 

 

Pippa:

Nick and I are actually pictured in the space craft coming in to land on Planet Pick-and-Mix.  Search carefully, and you’ll spot us!

If I had all those choices to choose from when we came down to land, I think I’d mostly go for blue things.  Why?  Because blue is my favourite colour.  I’d pick the blue bobbed hair to wear.

Nick: I’d choose the blue and orange hair and the Saturn top.

Pippa: A blue iced donut to eat.

Nick: It has to be the rainbow jelly for me.

Pippa: I’d very much like to meet the smiley blue alien with knobs on her head who rides a scooter and makes blue sandcastles from soft blue sand. I think she would make a fun friend.

Nick: I think the tall alien with the spike on the top of his head looks like he’d be nice and friendly.

Pippa: I’d also like to try and spy a duckafly from all the strange animal things as I fly by in one of those big baskets with wings.

Nick: My favourite is the horse bird.

Pippa: I’d very much like to ride on a pink-powered orange space hopper.  Why?  Because space hoppers were a new toy here on Earth when I was about ten, and I got one for my birthday, and I hopped and hopped on it again and again.  If it had that added pink zoom power I could hop it higher into the sky, and maybe even fly into space and explore all those other planets.

Nick: I had a space hopper too! But I’m going for the rollercopter.

With huge thanks to Pippa and Nick for taking time out of their busy writing and illustrating schedules to read their book with me. What would you choose? Go into space and make your own choices here.

 

A Visit to The Children’s Bookshow


Was it unfair to split the audience into cats (Judith Kerr) and dogs (John Burningham)?

In actuality, Nicolette Jones of The Sunday Times did point out the similarities between Judith Kerr’s work and John Burningham’s work. They both had huge success with their debut books, The Tiger Who Came to Tea and Borka respectively, and Nicolette Jones also showed the audience slides of the little detailed parallels between the two illustrators’ work – depictions of a cat and dog peeing, a baby in a blue romper – much to the amusement of the audience of school children.

This was on September 29th, at The Old Vic Theatre in London, where I was a guest at The Children’s Bookshow, a charity that runs an annual tour of children’s authors and illustrators around theatres and venues in the UK for schoolchildren.

John Burningham set quite a high bar for illustrators back in 1963 when he published Borka. Not only was he the first to win the Kate Greenaway Award for a debut picture book, but his was also the first children’s book that Jonathan Cape published. It wasn’t to be the last. Unique it may have been, but it also depicted a now well-worn trope in children’s literature – that of a child, or in this case a goose, who doesn’t fit in.

Judith Kerr’s Tiger also boasts enormous longevity, with its now familiar warm domestic scenes, and like Borka, shows great sensitivity in the emotions it depicts and elicits.

And whether it was discussing first signs of a promising career, their work, or their travels, both illustrators showed their warmth and zest for life in Friday’s conversation.

Kerr’s childhood has been well documented, most particularly of course, in her own novelised version of her life, When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit. She speaks about her escape from soon-to-be Nazi Germany, talking about the near-misses in life that dictate how the future turns out:

“I think of the people who didn’t get out who would have given anything to have a small part of the life I’ve had.” Her modesty glimmers through in every sentence as she speaks of the glare her mother gave her for almost giving them away to the passport inspector on the train:

“I wasn’t the most intelligent child,” she says, but she was clearly talented, for her mother had the foresight to save her childhood drawings, bringing them with her in a small suitcase from Germany.

Burningham too, has travelled extensively, although his journeys were mainly contained within the UK. The one place he hasn’t visited is the fictionalised place he references in answer to a well-worn question. As with many children’s authors, he’s often asked where he gets ideas from, and he says his favourite answer to that was the person who said, “If I knew, I’d go there.”

He may not have been to the land of ideas, but it certainly seems as if he has. His latest book shows the quirkiness and specialised way of thinking that many of the top children’s authors and illustrators possess. There is a purposeful naivety to his drawings, but also an idiosyncratic approach to the storytelling which enables him to see things from a different point of view – Mouse House explores the plight of a mouse family when a pest controller is called in by the human parents. The children of the house write a warning note to the mice, enabling them to leave before their execution. Of course, as with many children’s critics, Nicolette Jones reads into this the plight of refugees, perhaps echoing the experiences of Kerr, who is also on stage, recounting her refugee childhood. But it is this very quality that distinguishes Burningham’s work – the ability to read the narrative whichever way one is inclined.

For both illustrators, there is no end to the ideas they have, as proven by their prolific output. Whether inspiration is taken from true-life occurrences, such as Kerr’s father, who for a short time attempted to adopt a seal, retold more kindly in Mr Cleghorn’s Seal, to Burningham’s take on the world around us in such books as Whaddayamean, an exploration of arms control and pollution.

Both infuse their books with their own sense of humour, which comes across in conversation too. Be it stumbling into the illustrators’ world, or failing illustration class at the Central School of Art (Kerr is the latter), they both approach illustration as a privilege and an honour, and are delighted to still be practising the art – Kerr is 94, Burningham, slightly younger at age 81. They are both still working, and still promoting children’s literature, especially to the noisy and enthusiastic audience at the Old Vic, as Burningham says, “I don’t worry about the ideas running out, I worry about time running out.”

 

Shapes, Colours, Music and Mystery

One of the wonders of reading is being able to sew threads through the most unlikely of book pairings, and knit them together. Intertextuality is the relationship between texts: common links and themes, references and allusions, and working out how these make the books stand together or apart.


The Cranky Caterpillar is a new picture book from artist Richard Graham and ostensibly shows a young child, Ezra, trying to cheer up a cranky caterpillar who is stuck inside a piano. Graham utilises a great deal of humour and pathos in his tale, as Ezra tries everything from introducing fresh air to concocting beautiful meals, and buying a new hat. Graham’s artistry comes to the fore here in his depiction of a little girl employing all the schemes to cheer up the caterpillar that she would enjoy herself, and this shows on her sympathetically expressive face. But there are also clues as to where the depths of the story lie in her design – her legs, for example, are shaped like musical notes, which becomes more obvious as the book continues, and there is a growing abundance of tranquility in her face when she hears music.

Because although on one level the book is about learning to articulate emotion, showing kindness to another who is unhappy, and the importance of friendship, on another level the book introduces the world of synaesthesia – how one sensory stimulation leads to automatic secondary stimulation, such as the colour of music, or the music of colour. Here, Graham takes inspiration from Kandinsky, who believed that he could hear music when he saw colours – and the illustrations halfway through the book are a paean to Kandinsky’s abstract phase. Kandinsky, who believed that colour itself is an art form, that it isn’t always necessary to show the recognisable shape of something. The Cranky Caterpillar does have a recognisable story shape of course, with a happy ending, as with most caterpillars in storybooks – but there’s a wondrous depth and craft to this picture book too – making it work on many levels. Graham’s use of colours in geometric shapes sings through the pages of the book, at the point when Ezra gathers a band to play joyful music to the caterpillar, in a moving anticipation of his eventual flight of happiness.

In the same way in which graphic shapes work as a key component to uncovering the mystery in Robin Steven’s The Guggenheim Mystery. This new middle grade novel has, at its heart, the mystery of the theft of the Kandinsky painting, ‘In the Black Square’.

The Guggenheim Mystery tells the story of Ted, a boy with a form of autism, who is visiting his aunt and cousin in New York, when a painting mysteriously disappears from the Guggenheim art gallery, of which his aunt is the curator. When the spotlight falls firmly on her as culprit, Ted and his cousins set off on an adventure to clear her name, and by doing so learn about the value of art. (Wonderfully, the author has borrowed from an episode in her own mother’s past for this – her mother worked at the Ashmolean in Oxford when a Cezanne painting was stolen.)

The book’s sense of place is vital, as Ted and his cousins move through the subway, Times Square, Brooklyn and Central Park to follow up leads to their detective work. Having been to NY many times, and most recently last month, I can attest to the accuracy and authenticity of the settings – as well as confirm that the painting is firmly in place in the museum (and there’s a wonderful children’s audio commentary which is well worth the visit!). But reading the book, whether you have been to New York or not, certainly calls to mind the excitement and uniqueness of this incredible city.

What’s more, one gets the feeling that Steven’s protagonist, Ted, sees the world more like Kandinsky than the rest of us:

“I noticed that the tilt of the Earth and the position of the sun meant that its light was passing through more air to reach ground level in New York. Each air molecule it bumped against made it scatter more and more, so that by the time it reached our eyes it was red and yellow instead of blue.”

Of course, his autism makes his senses more acute – accentuating sounds, colours, shapes. In fact, it’s Ted’s difference in seeing things that enables him to see things that others miss, and thereby solve the mystery. He wants to find patterns and logic in what he sees, which contrasts beautifully with his absorption of the chaos and noise of New York. But it also brings into play Kandinsky and the Guggenheim itself. He transforms the chaos into a theory and finally solves the jigsaw, with much help from the shapes and patterns of the Guggenheim itself – the whorls of the ramps, the triangles of the stairs, the curvature of the exterior.

This too links back to the Kandinsky painting, which shows the order and clean shapes of the weather, as well as depicting an expressiveness of the abstract.

The power of the book is in the very fact that Stevens distils this all into logical simplicity for Ted and for the reader – each chapter fastidiously traipses through the facts of the case, eliminating the impossibles. It’s easy to follow, but intriguing to read – I didn’t guess the culprit. It also follows on from Ted and his cousins’ appearance in The London Eye Mystery, and, cleverly maintains their distinctive personalities and relationships (despite having been written by a different author, the late Siobhan Dowd).

Both The Cranky Caterpillar and The Guggenheim Mystery are stellar examples of artistic endeavours coming to fruition. Richard Graham is an upcycling artist, and took his inspiration from not only Kandinsky, but from the hammers inside a cast-off piano. Look carefully at the detail in the illustrations and you’ll see how the caterpillar is crafted, as well as the most carefully crafted illustrations – taking inspiration from great artists, but also from the visuality of music. Stevens was asked to write the mystery as a sequel to late author Siobhan Dowd’s The London Eye Mystery, having been left with just the title to go on. With both books there is a pattern to their work, a pattern through shapes and colours and imagination. Perfect books for exploring children’s own creative endeavours.

You can buy The Cranky Caterpillar by Richard Graham here and The Guggenheim Mystery by Robin Stevens and Siobhan Dowd here.

 

Kevin by Rob Biddulph

Reading is so satisfying because it’s one of the closest ways we have of getting inside someone else’s brain – and I don’t mean just inside the characters’ thoughts, but also the author’s. It’s fascinating to see how someone else’s mind works, how they deal with a particular situation, or even simply the fluffy rainbows and unicorns that bounce about in their head.

One of the most striking ways some children have of utilising their imagination is in the creation of an imaginary friend. I’ve looked at this a little bit here to explore the whys of this phenomena – and trust me I think it’s something that can pervade adulthood too, especially for writers – I know my characters certainly live with me in one way or another.

Rob Biddulph’s latest picture book character explores this phenomena with a very clear motive. Sid Gibbons invents his imaginary friend as a scapegoat – someone to blame when Sid himself messes up. His mother, wisely, demands evidence of this guilty persona, and Sid draws Kevin (his imaginary friend) in quite acute detail, and his mother, wisely again, doesn’t ‘disbelieve’ in the friend – only in the premise that Kevin, not Sid, is to blame.

By the end of the story, empathy with Kevin shows Sid the error of his ways, (through a delightful little twist in the middle of the story), and before long Sid not only starts behaving, but enjoying his time with Kevin – and Biddulph sneakily lets the reader into the secret that Sid’s not the only child to have invented an imaginary friend.

Biddulph brings his distinctive rhyming style to this picture book, but has expanded upon it, so the sentences are longer, but still retain the rhythm and bounce of his previous books. The illustrations though, are exquisite. Freed from the animals of Penguin Blue, Biddulph not only portrays his humans with style and personality – from Sid’s trapper hat to his mother’s slippers – but also crafts the most appealing make-believe world, complete with a vast array of colourful flowers, spotty rainbows, and daft made-up beastie creatures. Shot through with a wide colour palate, they are nostalgic for adults used to 1970’s fashions, and vibrant for young children. Biddulph has a certain talent for images that appear simple, but are layered with detail. It’s fun to try to copy them – many children do (and for those with adults on twitter, you can follow his work on #drawwithRob).

What’s more the moral messages throughout – not blaming others, saying sorry, understanding others, cherishing friendship – aren’t spelled out in a pompous saccharine way, but carefully dripped through the story so that they are gently absorbed.

My only quibble is the portrayal of the Dad behind a newspaper and the mother with takeaway coffee and ugg boots, although in Biddulph’s defence perhaps it is just an accurate reflection of UK middle-class suburbia. Full marks though for the diversity of the children on the last pages – there’ll be much fun for children in spotting the different children, different beasties and familiar playground equipment. Watch out too for allusions to prior Biddulph picture books, and the final image, which suggests that sometimes Biddulph too escapes to his own imaginary world. You can buy your own copy here.

Storm Whale by Sarah Brennan, illustrated by Jane Tanner


There are many sorts of picture books. The ones that tickle and inspire giggles, the ones that teach a lesson on manners, those with silly monster and toilet jokes, and those that are cute and fluffy, but every so often comes one with text that reads like grand poetry, illustrations that demand to be pinned upon the wall, and an ending that calms, but also brings tears to the eyes.

Storm Whale is one of the most sumptuously illustrated, quietly intelligent, and emotional picture books I have read in some time. It tells the simple story of a beached whale and three girls’ attempts to save it. In this way it perhaps invokes memories of The Snail and the Whale, and a picture book with the same name, The Storm Whale by Benji Davies.

However, this is set apart in that it meshes together the best from each aforementioned title. The text rivals that of Donaldson’s. Sarah Brennan’s text rhymes too, and reads even more lyrically, with a lilt that gives a nod to the rhythm of the sea.

“Bleak was the day and the wind whipped down
When I and my sisters walked to town.”

It begs to be read aloud, and paints a magnificent picture of the atmosphere and the power of the wind and sea. This may be summer, but it’s a wild shoreline here, no ice creams and sandcastles, but nature – birds, unspoilt coastlines, shells and seclusion.

Brennan has carefully chosen vocabulary to illustrate the sounds of her poem, from ‘wrack and wreck’ to “the waves slip-slapped,” and the imagery is pure gold, “seaweed, high as a mermaid’s throne…” but I think it’s more than the sum of its parts. For all that the words sing, they come together in a rhythm that lulls and pulls on the emotions.

But it is also the partnering with award-winning illustrator Jane Tanner that lifts this picture book into new territory. The illustrations have a distinctive style (vastly different from Benji Davies, but with their own inimitable grace). At first the images are pencil sketched black and white, and drawn with such dexterity that the image almost makes the reader believe that the wind is rushing through the pages. The girls’ faces are expressive, betraying their delight and innocence. Then, on discovery of the whale, the colour floods in, as the sea floods into the bay, and the angle zooms out, so that the reader sees the beach from a gull’s view. Again, the movement is sweeping. Zooming in again a page later to the girls, with an intensity to their body language that implies their desperation as they try to save the whale. The illustration is so detailed and packed with emotion that the sound of the ocean’s roar is loud in the ears, the girls’ futility against nature deafening.

And then, in perhaps the most startling illustration of the book, the girls are shown warm at bedtime, home in the sanctuary of their mother’s arms. Tanner has used a mass of yellows and oranges to contrast with the blues and greens of the sea, and the page feels alive with the flicker of fire and warmth. Again, the faces of the girls are illuminated, sharp and expressive. And the ending, back on the beach, when it comes, is uplifting with hope and sunshine after the storm.

Picture book of the year. It publishes 1st August, and you can buy it here.

Summer 2017 Round-Up

It’s been a tough year to round down the number of books on the desk to just a few highlights for summer reading. And I have to admit that many of my choices are continuations of superb new series, because which child doesn’t love a good meaty series, especially when the writing is as stunning as in those picked below?

Picture Books:

Poppy and the Blooms by Fiona Woodcock sets the tone for summer with its soft colour palette contrasting with its feisty zesty skateboarding wildflower characters. With an environmental message, teamwork, and clever inventive illustrations of urban life, this is an expressive picture book. Emily Gravett is a firm favourite picture book author, and her latest, Old Hat, is full of delightful images. A dog tries desperately to keep up with hat fashions, phenomenally fails but ends up setting an entirely new trend in the process. Surprising, funny, and rather attractive (look out for the traffic cone hat).


More animals in The Nut Stayed Shut by Mike Henson. A cracking read in almost comic book style that aims to show patience pays off. The squirrel can’t open his nut, even with an elephant or a digger. The rhyming text comically explains his dilemma, and a rather animated owl at first documents and then supports his friend. Funny, cartoon-like, and will teach the very littlest about slapstick. For those with a dryer wit and sardonic humour, try I Dare You by Reece Wykes. Two gorillas dare each other in an eating challenge that gets ever more ridiculous. A perfect game of one-upmanship soon degenerates into farce. You have to have as strong a stomach as the gorillas to read this to a sensitive toddler – beware, it doesn’t end well for one of the gorillas. Great fun lies in the illustrations, particularly for adults!


For a human who wants to be an animal, you can’t better I am Actually a Penguin by Sean Taylor, illustrated by Kasia Matyjaszek. Although the title sounds as if it’s Lola speaking from Charlie and Lola, and replicates the more restrictive older brother, this little girl is even more stubborn than Lola. Her family try to implore her to remove her costume, to not unroll toilet paper across the sofa as snow, to not come down the stairs head first in penguin slide mode, but all to no avail. Then finally, she realises she cannot go to school dressed as a penguin – the twist in the ending is equally endearing. A great book for anyone who’s ever schlepped around a stubborn fancy-dress clad toddler, or anyone with a warm sense of humour. More siblings in My Sister is Bigger Than Me by Kate Maryon and Lisa Stubbs. It strikes the perfect dichotomy between wanting a big sister to play and yet not wanting them to totally dominate and rule the games. It’s all love and comfort in the end of course. Quite long, but the rhyme zips you through.

Newly Independent Readers (age 6+ ish):

Those moving onto chapter books will adore the latest offerings here. Experienced author Chris Higgins teams up with illustrator Emily MacKenzie with a new series about a girl called Bella who has just moved house, Trouble Next Door. Bella is a little wobbly until she meets next-door-neighbour Magda. The only problem is that Magda tends to push fun into trouble. Beautifully illustrated and packed full with the kind of winsome anecdotes and age appropriate worries, all resolved with Higgin’s storytelling aplomb. Another fun author is Emma Barnes with her new series Chloe’s Club about three girls, Chloe, Eliza and Aisha, the second of which is just published and called Chloe’s Secret Fairy Godmother Club, illustrated by Mike Love. Inspired by The Secret Seven, clubs are fun for passwords, badges and secret names among other things. The Godmother club is inspired by Eliza’s news that she’s about to become a big sister.

Harriet Muncaster continues to churn out Isadora Moon titles, the latest being Isadora Moon Gets in Trouble. Good thing too, the kids in the library can’t get enough of these, and they’re great for re-reading. Lastly, one of my favourite series continues with new title Super Dog. Wigglesbottom Primary: Super Dog by Pamela Butchart and Becka Moor is a perfectly pitched school story (three in one book), that pleases every child who picks it up. Funny yes, and filled with school dinners, friendships and speculation.

Middle Grade (age 8+ ish):

One of the books of the year for this age group is Letters from the Lighthouse by Emma Carroll. All Carroll’s novels exude a flowing prose, and all tell a great historical story with the lightest of touches. This is no exception. Set in 1941, Olive is evacuated to the coast after a London air raid in which her sister goes missing. But there are mysteries afoot on the Devonshire coast where Olive and her brother stay with the lighthouse keeper. What is his connection to her missing sister? And why is he stockpiling food? With a wonderful use of chapter headings – Keep Calm and Carry On, Careless Talk Costs Lives and so on, the history comes to life as the mystery unfolds. So whether it’s a beach read or for back to school, this tale is set to be an enduring Second World War children’s favourite.

Other gems to look out for are Mold and the Poison Plot by Lorraine Gregory, a debut novel told in Mold’s idiosyncratic dialect in a fantasy world about an unlikely hero. Hilariously funny with smells galore. Gregory has captured the essence of children’s literature – bravery, overcoming bullies, seeing past difference, looking out for the world around us and more. Don’t miss. More hilarity ensues in The Big Fat Totally Bonkers Diary of Pig by Emer Stamp. Going from strength to strength, this fourth in the series continues with Pig’s tales of his adventures, written diary format – with each day being named after how it went, for example, Badfartsyday and Trauma-Morn. It’s inevitable that any book set on a farm and narrated from the point of view of the animals will have connotations with Animal Farm, and even this light-hearted text, purposely written with incorrect grammar, and full of high jinks, farts and slapstick, draws some comparison. Stamp has great fun with Pig’s misunderstanding of idioms, his appalling grammar, and general pigginess, as well as playing up the stereotypes of soldier and warfare, as the plot pivots on a new Battle of the Cow Shed (sorry, Orwell). Kids adore this series. They recognise that although it seems inherently silly on the surface, it’s actually written with acuity and a great sense of structure.

Chunkier and more literary are Beetle Queen by MG Leonard and The Night Spinner by Abi Elphinstone. I reviewed Beetle Boy here, and it was included in many ‘best of’ lists for 2016. Earlier this year, the sequel, Beetle Queen was published. The focus this time shifts to the villain of the piece, Lucretia Cutter – just as duplicitous and delightfully dangerous as before – she induces the kind of fear as when a tarantula crawls across your skin. The story is littered with a plethora of entomological vocabulary, but there is a glossary at the back to help with the scientific language. Again, Leonard captures in a nutshell the beauty of the children’s novel – overcoming difficulties and fears, a clever comic undertone and a plot that sends you scurrying towards the end. I particularly love protagonist Darkus and his relationship with his father.

Rich villains and brave protagonists abound in Abi Elphinstone’s finale to her trilogy that started with The Dreamsnatcher. The Night Spinner is perhaps the best of the three, in which Moll must find the last Amulet in order to defeat the Shadowmasks. In the same vein as the other books, this is an adventure story through and through, as Moll and her allies traverse dangerous and thrilling landscapes, from wildernesses to mountain peaks, always at risk from shadowy villains, with Moll in grand pursuit of saving her friends as well as herself. But this last in the series is definitely the most compelling. The characters have matured, so that there is more thoughtfulness, more depth to both their actions and their motivations, and there is, if anything, an increased tenderness between the humans and their animal friends – drawn of course from Pullman’s daemons – but in this case Moll’s wildcat, and Siddy’s ferret. What is magical about this series is the deep darkness that Elphinstone is able to depict without it being too daunting for a child reader. If anything, it simply adds to the impression of the tumultuous task set for her protagonist – and matches the wide expanse of landscape….This is indeed a story for our times, a tale of perseverance and grit.

Lastly, for those seeking a graphic novel, it doesn’t get much more topnotch than Roller Girl by Victoria Jamieson. An import from the States, Jamieson brings her love of roller derby to a school transition story as she tells Astrid’s coming-of-age over one summer before Junior High. Lapped up by my testers, our heroine here is authentically drawn with much pathos, and readers warm to the sport as much as to the girl. A rip-rolling read.

For those who like a little less story in their books, there is also a good crop of non-fiction to keep readers busy. The Big Bird Spot by Matt Sewell reads like a Where’s Wally nature guide. The book is intended to inspire children to birdwatch in the great outdoors, but also serves as a useful activity in searching for the camouflaged bird on the page. It traverses the world with its scenes, and gives information on species and habitats. Vibrant and luminous.

Another round the world adventure is In Focus: Cities by Libby Walden, a beautiful production that features ten illustrators each showcasing, in their own eclectic way, ten famous cities from around the world including Tokyo, Rome and Istanbul. Giant flaps on each spread reveal further cultural, social and historical identities. Look for the Paris escargot, Moscow’s border guard and his dog, and Charlie in Sydney! A great collaborative idea, which will make you long for even longer vacations.

And lastly, for those who have children bored at the thought of dragging round museums, buy them a copy of The British Museum’s Maurice the Museum Mouse’s Amazing Ancient Facts and Jokes by Tracey Turner, illustrated by Mark Beech. They won’t be bored for long regaling you with such masterpieces as “Which ancient civilisation was the most untidy? Mess-opotamia.” Groan away. That’s it for the summer. MinervaReads will return in September with back to school books and a review of the new fabulous book by Katherine Rundell. Watch this space.