picturebooks

A Child’s Best Friend

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Age Before Beauty?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Great Big Book of Friends by Mary Hoffman and Ros Asquith

great big book of friendsIf you have a child in primary school, on at least one occasion you will have had a child return home from school with a ‘friends’ issue.

This book follows on the success of The Great Big Book of Family, and The Great Big Book of Feelings, both of which aim to show that there’s no right way to be a family, and no ‘right’ way to feel. The Great Big Book of Friends shows the reader that there is a multitude of ways in which you can be a friend, and have friends, but that the number of them isn’t important.

It’s always hard for a child to understand how some people act, why friends fall out, when they behave strangely, or are jealous. It can be difficult to see previous friends seek new friends, old friendships die out, and friendship groups switch and change – as they frequently do at this age.

Hoffman very simply explains some of this behaviour, and gives a reassuring guide to what’s okay. From defining who might be a friend, to expressing that one needs to be a bit brave in seeking friendship, the book is overwhelmingly encouraging and comforting. Some people find it easier to make friends, some don’t have best friends, and Hoffman explores how friendship changes over the ages from being something about sharing playdough perhaps to sharing opinions.

The book covers a range of psychographics, exploring what happens when friends don’t share our interests or think like us – very topical indeed. No one wants to be surrounded by an echo chamber all the time.

The cartoon-like illustrations all assist Hoffman in making her points, as well as showing the reader a wide range of people – both in demographics and diversity. The colours are bright and inviting; and there’s a humorous cat on each page, also struggling with the concept of friendship, which lightens the subject considerably. Each page is active – there are speech bubbles and thought bubbles, and a range of borders from stick figures holding hands to emotions shown when friends are ‘lost’.

There’s nothing ground-breaking here of course; some of this will seem like truism or platitude, but the concepts and ideas are expressed excellently, and it’s an informative back-up tool for exploring an upsetting or new situation. In the end, this aims to show what is normal and acceptable – and it turns out that everything is – even solitude.

The Great Big Book of Friends will be a core title in helping to support a child’s well being and emotional and social development, but it’s also fun. A positive, heartening book, which may serve as a good reminder to those adults sharing the book with their child – the best friendships develop from the smallest kindnesses. You can buy a copy for a friend here.

A Q&A with Bryony Thomson

It was the lampshades that frightened me. Pink, gentle tulips by day; at night after lights out, they morphed into vicious monsters with lightbulb tongues.

Many children imagine some kind of monster in the darkness while they lie in bed after lights out, and it can take parents several trips and opening and closing of wardrobes to reassure them. So what relief to find a book that helps to assuage fears.

The Wardrobe Monster by Bryony Thomson explores what makes Dora and her toy friends afraid to go to sleep, and grouchy the next morning. It actually is a monster in the wardrobe, but this monster is as scared as they, and so they all snuggle in bed together, until another bump gives them a fright.

Thomson’s book is delightful in its premise, but most particularly in its illustrations and depiction of Dora and her soft toys. They are as lifelike as Woody and Buzz, and inflected with as much personality as Pooh, Eeyore and friends. The Wardrobe Monster is Bryony Thomson’s debut picturebook, and from this superb start, it’s easy to see that she’ll go far.

A firm favourite here already – I look forward to gifting it to friends’ small children. There are so many exquisite touches, from Dora and friends stalling bedtime, to addressing the wardrobe monster as ‘Mr Wardrobe Monster’, to the play on Lion’s bravery; but my favourite is the constant affection and intimacy between Dora and her toys. Beguiling and comforting, this is an adorable and pleasurably happy read. I was lucky enough to quiz Bryony on her debut:

The Wardrobe Monster is a comfort book for those children who have a fear of the dark. How did you counteract this fear when you were young without The Wardrobe Monster to help you?

I’m not sure I had a very good system – that’s partly why I wanted to write The Wardrobe Monster. I had a very vivid imagination as a child and can remember lying in my bed at school as various pipes and bits of furniture in the enormous dormitory creaked and groaned, making up all sorts of possible scenarios for what could be causing the noise. That would usually go on until I couldn’t keep my eyes open any more!

The soft toy teddies in your book all have distinctive characters, something the publisher compares to those in Winnie the Pooh. Was that an influence on you? And which other books/illustrations have influenced you?

I would definitely count Winnie the Pooh as one of the long term influences on my work. It was one of my favourite books growing up, in particular the incident where Pooh goes to visit Rabbit, eats too much honey and condensed milk and gets stuck in the rabbit hole. The characters all have such distinctive voices, I can still hear them in my head (the way my Dad used to read them) and that has had a massive influence on my storytelling.

In terms of other books and illustrations, I would say Rebecca Cobb’s books such as Lunchtime and Aunt Amelia. I love the simplicity of her stories and illustrations, there is a real sense of joy and magic to them. Laura Carlin has also been a big influence from an illustration point of view. When I began to study how her drawings are connected to reality and observation whilst at the same time incorporating a high level of stylisation it was a real revelation and opened a lot of doors. Somehow it gave me the confidence to let go of the need to make everything completely accurate and true to life.

The pictures in the book feel so warm and enticing to children because they look as if they were done in crayon. What medium did you do the book in, and which medium do you prefer?

The book is made with a combination of monoprint and pencil scanned in, layered together and then coloured in Photoshop. This process was something new I discovered while working on the early stages of this book and I feel it suits the story well.

I don’t know whether I have a favourite medium as I’m always trying to discover the best thing for a particular story. I do have a never ending love affair with screenprint but I find it rather too labour intensive for books; it is too much of a disaster when you get something wrong!

For me the choice of medium is always about creating a high enough level of uncertainty in the end result. I’m naturally a real perfectionist and so to fight against this I try to use media that I can’t fully control; often it is the mistakes or unexpected outcomes that lead to the biggest breakthrough in the artwork. I think that is why I like print techniques as you never really know how something is going to turn out until you’ve done it.

I adore the main character’s distinctive hair colour and matching slippers. Was this something that occured to you near the beginning of the process, or an inspired decision near the end?

Dora’s hair was pink right from the very first draft of the story – possibly because I’ve always wanted to have pink hair! What came later was the idea to incorporate some of the pink into the Wardrobe Monster to create a connection between the two characters. As if, even though this was an enormous scary monster, there was something in him that Dora could immediately recognise and empathise with.

You’ve avoided using gendered pronouns for the soft toys in your book. Was this a reaction to the recent survey regarding male gendered animals in picture books?

Whilst I thought that survey was incredibly interesting in terms of reflecting how we naturally tell stories, it wasn’t actually an influence on my decision; I made the choice right from the very beginning, a long time before the survey results came out. My reasoning was that I knew I wanted a female lead character in Dora – in large part because she represented me in the story – but I was very aware that I didn’t want to create a book that appealed solely to girls by designating the other characters as male or female.

I have a very clear idea in my head of the genders of the other characters because of who I have based them on in real life, but I wanted the reader to be able to see them in their own way.

You mention that you went to boarding school. Not many children are used to that concept now. Was it all midnight feasts and tuck shops?

Not really…there certainly was a tuck shop and the occasional midnight feast but mainly it was just lessons, really horrible school food and slightly old fashioned plumbing (my first school was in a very old stately home in Norfolk)! I went when I was 8 through until I left school at 17 and found it quite hard. You get used to the routine of being away from home but it doesn’t really make you miss it any less. What it does give you, however, is a fantastic education, as there are far fewer distractions and a lot of confidence in your own ability to cope with whatever life throws at you. Plus for me it gave me the inspiration for The Wardrobe Monster!

Do you have a favourite soft toy that you took/take to bed?

When I was born my grandmother made me a soft toy dog with long ears and a zip in her tummy for my pyjamas; I called her Debbie. She is now unbelievably battered and threadbare and is living out her well earned retirement at my Mum and Dad’s house.

Where do you do your illustrating? Do you have a particular desk/pen?

I have a little basement studio at our house in Surrey which I absolutely love! It is really quiet and peaceful and I can shut the door and get totally immersed in whatever I’m working on.

I don’t have a particular pen but I do have very specific tools for different jobs – for rough drawings and character development I need a Castell 9000 2B pencil and for monoprinting a Caran d’Ache Neocolor II crayon and Grafwood 3B pencil. I’d love to say that I’m really flexible and can pick up anything to draw with but if I don’t have those three things there is usually a bit of a crisis, followed by some speedy internet shopping!

Quickfire:
Favourite colour: Purple
Favourite biscuits: Dark chocolate digestives
Best TV show: Of all time? Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Most treasured childhood memory: Every year for my birthday we used to go to one of the local farms to see the new lambs, you could stroke them and pick them up, it was magical.
Best place in the world: Suffolk without a shadow of a doubt – that’s where I grew up.
Favourite childhood book: Hard to choose just one but Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfield, I must have read it or been read it dozens of times.

With thanks to Bryony Thomson for answering my questions. You can find her website here, and seek her on twitter here. If you want to read more about Bryony Thomson, have a look here tomorrow for more on Bryony’s blogtour, and you can buy your own copy of The Wardrobe Monster here

First Day of Spring

This week heralds the official first day of Spring, apparently named because in the 14th century ‘springing time’ was a reference to the time of year when plants were ‘springing’ from the ground. And so, a few nature books for you, to usher in the return of migratory birds and draw inspiration from the natural world.

bird houseBird House by Libby Walden, illustrated by Clover Robin
Beautifully designed, with lift-the-flap features, this is a perfect first nature book for little hands. Adorably shaped like a house, the book endeavours to teach about different bird species and their homes. The first page deals with ducks, and man-made duck houses, but also features nests, and gives the names for male and female ducks, groups and babies.

The book goes on to cover pigeons and doves, woodpeckers, swallows, sparrows and owls, with hints at the back for how to create a bird-friendly outdoors space. The book is as sturdy as you’d want a bird house to be, with earthy colours throughout, and much green. The illustrations are cartoon-like rather than anatomical, but layered with wonderful textures, and give a true indication of colouring.

Also available is Bug Hotel, with facts about favourite garden insects and instructions for building your own bug hotel. An attractive, lively and informative start for young readers. You can buy it here.

 

 

earth verseEarth Verse by Sally M Walker and William Grill
Something completely different in this stunning picture book that tells the story of the Earth through poetry and illustration.

A haiku on each page simply suggests the beauty and majesty of the planet we live on, starting with a pulled-back image of the Earth as seen from space, with swirling blue and white. The book progresses through a host of illustrations that draw near or zoom out – from the outer crust to layered sediment, huge cliffs and fossil finds, to small flowers perched upon sand dunes.

Each has a concentrated description in this briefest form of poetry, and each illustration in coloured pencil is an impression rather than a factual diagram – a brushstroke of nature. It suits the poetry, which aims to inspire and to emote, (with further reading resources given at the back). The illustrations also suit the sensibility of the book, which is child-friendly and dreamlike in tone.

Colours stream throughout the book – blue to start as we see the planet from space, startling red for fire, then stripes of wonder as the rocks shift and layer with sediment.

The words resound with magnitude, as Walker gallops through dramatic natural events – a volcano, a tsunami, a storm – showing the violence and force, as well as the calm of a gull wearing ‘sand socks’ as it leaves footprints across the shore.

Walker uses personification to bring the haikus close to readers – the intimacy of the fiery fingers, the tiptoes of the creatures. The hotheaded mountain throwing an igneous tantrum. The words and images are both appealing and familiar.

And together Grill and Walker add elements of where there is an Intersection of human involvement in nature, an interaction with our planet.

There are also pages of prose information at the back; the reader is guided to these by a visual key of nine symbols, including minerals, fossils, glaciers, groundwater. These full paragraphs explain their topic well, but the diagrams accompanying are unlabelled and therefore tricky for a novice to decipher.

One for inspiration and awe. 8+ years. You can buy it here.

treesWhat On Earth? Trees by Kevin Warwick and Pau Morgan
For full-on, comprehensive knowledge, What On Earth? is an immensely high quality non-fiction series. This particular book covers all aspects of trees (for the very young), and also ties the basic scientific knowledge into hands-on activities, as well as interconnecting it with culture and history – something for which cross-curricular teachers will be grateful.

The first section takes a look at the different parts of a tree – with an in-depth look at leaves and their shapes and sizes, followed by information spreads on seeds and dispersal, needles and trunks. Interspersed between the information pages are spreads labelled ‘investigate’ or ‘create’ and these contain activities. Both artistic – creating a tree on paper using fallen leaves, to scientific – testing how far seeds travel – there is something for everyone.

The ideas are simply explained and easy to execute, but inspirational and fun. Drawing in other cultures and their stories adds a new dynamic, and of course there is the requisite section on global warming and the effect upon trees.

The digital illustrations are colourful, bright and friendly, and encourage the reader to really engage with the natural world, looking at what grows around them and giving clear step-by-step guidance on the activity spreads. The book will not only teach about trees, but about how to conduct first scientific experiments of exploration and investigation.

There’s an easy conclusion to draw here – this is a fantastic piece of non-fiction in which every page earns its worth – the tree this book originated from would be proud! 6+ years. Buy your own here.

Alphabets: A Guest Blog by Allan Sanders

alphabet of alphabetsCertain picture books stand out in the library as being favourites for free-reading time. They happen to all have something in common – their interactive ‘search and find’ functions. Where’s Wally, You Choose – any book that invites the reader to look carefully for something, count it, or make a decision, provokes discussion and sustained reading.

Search-And-Find Alphabet of Alphabets by Allan Sanders is new, fresh and exciting, and lends itself both to pictorial and wordplay; sometimes the alphabetised pages feature both a picture search and a word search. The illustrations are cartoon-like, with a nod to Scheffler in the anthropomorphic animals, and the vocabulary is stretching – this is not for babies, with words such as numbat, kinetoscope, hieroglyphics and limousine. Good for honing observation skills, and of course, for logophiles.

Below, Allan Sanders explains how he came to make the book, and how he managed to cheat a little with the difficult letters, but mainly, for MinervaReads, how he designed the letter M.

Amanda Wood and Mike Jolley are the brains behind The Alphabet of Alphabets. When they approached me with the idea for the book, I knew immediately it would be a great project. Mandy and Mike have made some great books together, so I jumped at the chance to work with them and Wide Eyed Editions.

The idea for The Alphabet of Alphabets is quite simple – 26 illustrated alphabets from A-Z.  A is for Alphabet, B is for Birds, C is for Creepy-crawlies, and so on. Within each alphabet there’s a whole other alphabet of things to find. On D is for Dinosaurs there is an A to Z of dinosaurs from Apatosaurus to Zuniceratops. On I for Inventions, you have to find everything from an Abacus to a Zeppelin. With 26 different alphabets, our book has got over 600 words to find!

The first stage in making an alphabet for each letter was to agree on a theme. For M we we came up with Machines, Music, Monsters, Mythology, or an alphabet of Moustaches! After some discussion we agreed that M for Museum would be the best fit. Museums are full of lots of very interesting things so it was an obvious choice. We knew it would offer a wide range of words to learn, and also lots of cool things to draw. In our museum you have to find everything from a suit of Armour to a Ziggurat.

As we worked on each alphabet, we found that it was a challenge to come up with things for certain letters – Q, Z, X & U are particularly tricky.  If we couldn’t think of anything for the letter U, we would be a bit cheeky and have underpants as the thing to find!  Even if we did have a letter U, we decided to include underpants in the picture anyway!

In the Museum you have to find the Urn, but there is also a pair of underpants in a glass case. I imagine that these underpants must have huge historical significance! They could have been the underpants worn by the first man in space, or underpants worn by the first president of the United States of America. Or perhaps, they are prehistoric underpants and they belonged to a Neanderthal man. We left it up to the reader to decide who they belong to!

I hope kids will enjoy finding all of the things in the Museum. Once they have found everything on the list they can try and find more things in the picture. Often there is more than one thing beginning with each letter. Once they have exhausted the book (it will take some time!) they could think about the different alphabets around them. You could come up with an alphabet for where you live, or an alphabet of your favourite foods, or an alphabet of all the countries in the world. You can have a lot of fun thinking about alphabets!

In the book you’ll find an alphabet of hats, a toy shop alphabet, an alphabet in space and an alphabet of yellow things! For the letter V we made a vehicles alphabet, a whole A-Z of crazy vehicles to find. I really like drawing cars so this picture was one of my favourites. Alongside the more traditional modes of transport we managed to squeeze in some unexpected things: a vampire driving a hearse, a nun on a skateboard, a yellow submarine and a heavy metal rock band in a pink limousine!

The most difficult alphabet to complete was W for things to Wear.  We came up with the idea of a character wearing 26 alphabetical items of clothing – all at the same time! That doesn’t sound like such a big deal but you should try wearing that many items of clothing whilst retaining any kind of fashion sense. Things can get pretty silly, pretty fast…

The Alphabet of Alphabets is the 10th non-fiction title that I’ve worked on. I feel that I have learnt a lot from all the books that I have illustrated, but with 26 alphabets to draw this was definitely the biggest project I’ve ever done. It was a real pleasure to work with Mandy & Mike and the lovely team at Wide Eyed Editions. I hope we can make another book together soon.

The Alphabet of Alphabets, created by Mike Jolley and Amanda Wood and illustrated by Allan Sanders, is published by Wide Eyed Editions, and you can buy it here. Check out Allan’s instagram to see fun animations associated with the book: omnibus and boats.

Allan Sanders studied at Manchester University and the Royal College of Art. Over the last 15 years Allan has worked on animations for the FIFA World Cup website, illustrations for French road safety agency Sécuritié Routière, animations and posters for the Oregon Humane Society’s ‘End Petlessness’ campaign, children’s books including Perfectly Perilous Math, Little Explorers and How Machines Work, and editorial projects for magazines & newspapers worldwide including The New Yorker and The Economist.  Allan lives in Brighton. For more information about Allan visit his website.

 

 

 

 

The Mystery of the Golden Wonderflower by Benjamin Flouw

golden wonderflowerI’m constantly bamboozled when I read a great English novel and discover that the author has named the plants that the protagonist brushes past in her garden, or the genus of trees that the antagonist climbs to launch his ambush. At my primary school we occasionally went on a ‘nature’ walk, but I gathered little more than conkers and pine cones. Now, my children can’t identify different leaves or wildflowers, they falter at nature – and this is despite having a house rich in books and traversing a field every morning to get to school (we do live in urban London though). The Lost Words helped enormously with this last year, but now, in British Science Week, (9th to 18th March), a simple picture book has caught my eye, published in Germany, translated from the French, and now on our own shores.

The Golden Wonderflower introduces Fox, a botanist, who realises that there’s a picture missing in one of his botany books. No one has yet drawn this rare precious plant called the Wonderflower, so Fox sets off on a long journey to find it.

Not only does Fox experience the most delightful journey, wandering through woodland – illustrated with light and dark, tall trees and a faint mist that feels so real that the reader can almost breathe the sweet air themselves, but also he recognises the plants along the way, and demonstrates his knowledge to the reader. Hence, every few pages of the story, Fox shows us the names and details of the plants – a pine leaf, tree and cone, all illustrated and labelled. A spruce, a beech, an oak and so on.

golden wonderflower inside

There are friends too, a bear fishing (with a rod), cousin Wolf who likes his food, and a marmot who points the Fox in the right direction up the mountain. Here, Flouw illustrates the different levels of the mountainside, in a landscape that highlights the different fields of crops, and the array of trees, which subtly change shape as he traverses up the mountain.

When the reader, and Fox, finally encounter the flower, the production team behind the book have done a beautiful job, for it is truly gaspworthy (using more than a little foiling – it shines). Fox knows not to pick it, for it is rare, so he sketches it instead, showing the reader the names of the different sections of a flower.

The illustrations are reminiscent of Jon Klassen in tone, although slightly more angular, and the colours reflective of the landscape – yellow, brown, green and orange hues in the woodland, blues and purples higher up the mountain, and of course, an abundance of green, particularly at Fox’s lush and verdant house.

Flouw also uses colour to delineate the time of day, and it’s the sunset at the top of the mountain that’s particularly magnificent, with colour sweeping across the page giving an atmospheric peace to the spread, and using the play of shadow to enormous effect.

The book aims to indicate the pleasure of a nature walk, the beauty of observing the natural world, but also points to conservation, as Fox realises how wrong it would be to pick this wonder flower. Instead he leaves it where and how it was – this is where it is most beautiful.

This book, conversely, should be picked up and leafed through, time and time again. It’s a wonder itself.

You can buy it here. Please note the book may be called The Golden Glow in the US.

Nine New Picture Books Begging to be Read

little red reading hood
Little Red Reading Hood by Lucy Rowland and Ben Mantle
‘Why didn’t I think of that play on words?’, is the first thing I thought upon reading the title, but when I perused the insides, I realised I couldn’t have done it better myself. This is a captivating and entrancing picture book – the sort a child treasures and rereads. Little Red Reading Hood loves books and in a twist, doesn’t visit her grandma, but rather, the library. When Little Red Reading Hood and the tenacious librarian impress the wolf with their literary knowledge and analysis, the wolf turns to stories instead of eating people.

The twist here, is that instead of straying from the physical path through the woods, it’s better to stray from the all-too-predictable ending of a story, and instead, reinvent it.

The story is told in rhyme, with pitch perfect rhythm, but it’s also the little touches that enhance this picture book so wonderfully. From the endpapers with Little Red Reading and the wolf having fun mixing up fairy stories, to the beautiful ethereal golden-hued illustrated imagination that soars through the book, to the nature depicted in the woods. This is a fabulous new picture book and my top choice. You can buy it here.

pirates of scurvy sands
The Pirates of Scurvy Sands by Jonny Duddle
The Pirates Next Door is an immensely popular read, and this sequel keeps equal pace and humour with the original. In fact, just one reading of it inspired my little tester to find and read ALL of Duddle’s back catalogue. This time round, Matilda is going on holiday with her pirate friends, the Jolly-Rogers. Their destination – Scurvy Sands – like a sort of Butlins for pirates. The only trouble is that Matilda, with her squeaky clean demeanour, doesn’t quite fit in.

This is a totally luscious affair for pirate fans. Also told in rhyme, it’s simply packed with swashbuckling vocabulary and pirate allusions, with a busy backdrop on every page – telescopes, pirate paraphernalia, characters and more. Duddle has gone to town (or sea) and had lots of fun in the process. There’s even a treasure map on the reverse of the book jacket. Gold coins all round. You can buy it here.

cat and dog
Cat and Dog by Helen Oswald and Zoe Waring
For younger children comes this exquisitely illustrated lesson on getting on with others. A nocturnal cat and a diurnal dog love to scrap, but when they fail to see eye to eye on their different routines, and Dog insults Cat, it looks like a beautiful friendship is over. By the end, of course, they learn to say sorry and accept each other’s differences.

It’s the illustrations in this simple story that bring it to life, two hugely endearing and familiar animals, drawn so that they look good enough to stroke. The crayon-led illustrations add to the familiarity of the chosen pets, and the last page of their ‘scrapping’ together is a clever childish mess. Too cute to miss, this is a lovely publication from new publisher on the block, Willow Tree Books. You can buy it here.


I Say Ooh You Say Ahh by John Kane
One for reading out loud to a willing audience, this reminded me of those old-time party entertainers, but here, the silliness is executed with modern panache and an element of complete childhood joy.

This is a traditional call and response book – the author asks the reader to say or do something every time they read or see something. The result has an hilarious effect, leading to the children shouting underpants quite often. The reader has also to remember which action goes with which command, so it’s stimulating too. Great for classroom fun, and the colours are bold, bright and all-encompassing. The author used to work in advertising – and it shows in the block colours – easy to look at, easy to understand. You can buy it here.


Ten Fat Sausages by Michelle Robinson and Tor Freeman
It’s often remarked how translated fiction can go further and push more boundaries than our home-grown picture books, but here’s one that takes the ten protagonists and really gives them a raw (cooked) deal.

A play on the song, Ten Fat Sausages Sizzling in a Pan, here Michelle Robinson shows what happens when they try to save themselves. Unfortunately, sausages don’t appear to be very clever. Whether it’s leaping from the pan into the blender, or even into a ceiling fan, it seems that no sausage is safe.

The illustrations from Tor Freeman match the madness of the concept – from blueberries with their eyes covered, to weeping sausages, hoola hooping onion rings, and an almost retro comic feel to the lot – this is a crazy sausage adventure. Sure to bring out the giggles in little ones. You can buy it here.


The Strongest Mum by Nicola Kent
Being a mum, and having a great mum myself, I’m always touched by the portrayal of fabulous mothers in picture books – be it giving Sophie a fabulous tea when the tiger arrives, or returning to the Owl Babies at the end of the night. The mum in this delightfully sweet picture book amasses belongings and carries them all as if she were weightlifting for England.

Dealing with a familiar issue (carrying everything!) – and why giving up the buggy too early and having to schlep all the shopping by hand can be a mistake – this is a wonderfully exaggerated portrayal of a super mum. From carrying some treasure found in the garden at the beginning, Little Bear’s Mum ends up carrying everything including Zebra’s shopping, Lion’s laundry, and then…a piano. It all comes crashing down though, and Little Bear realises he has to help.

The illustrations are undeniably child-friendly, in a multitude of jewel colours, with an aerial view of Mum’s bag, each item labelled! With oodles of white space, the book doesn’t feel slight because every illustration is packed with texture, pattern and colour, despite a slight transparency to it all. An intriguing new style and a good pick for Mother’s Day. You can buy it here.


Lionel and the Lion’s Share by Lou Peacock and Lisa Sheehan
Another for a slightly younger readership, giving a moral story, this encourages children to share. Lionel the Lion is bigger than most of his friends, and good at snatching. So whenever they see something they want, Lionel always gets there first. When Lionel goes a bit too far at Chloe the Cat’s birthday party, he realises that he’s angry and sad, and needs friends most. Sharing is best.

Drawn with tender pencil strokes, Lionel himself is phenomenally vibrant, with a large orange and brown mane, and his animal friends are equally detailed. They are vastly anthropomorphised with clothes as well as human behaviours, but it is the colourfulness and fun of the backgrounds that enhance this picture book. A detailed musical instrument shop, a hat shop, and the village green – this storybook world looks timeless and appealing. You can buy it here.


Robinson by Peter Sis
A bit of a love letter to Robinson Crusoe, this picture book takes a look at the meaning of being bullied for liking something different, and also a whimsical approach to solitariness. It also shows what happens when a child or adult finds inspiration, solace and adventure in a storybook and use it within their own lives.

In fact, author Peter Sis researched the flora and fauna of Martinique, the inspirational island behind Defoe’s novel, and used his knowledge to illustrate the book. Sis’s fine art background gives some insight into the illustrations in these structured and intriguing pictures. He plays with point of view and light and shadow to create an utterly unique look to the book. The colour palette tells the plot just as much as the narrative itself.

Typeset in uppercase letters, the whole book feels like a stream of consciousness, a message in a bottle, as the colours blossom and bloom with the boy’s discovery of his own island in the imagination.

The book aims to deliver a paean to the act of adventuring and exploration, even that which happens in the mind rather than in actuality. A great discovery. You can buy it here.


My Worst Book Ever by Allan Ahlberg and Bruce Ingman
Last, but definitely not least, if you’re wondering how all those authors and illustrators featured so far produced their books, then you’d best read My Worst Book Ever. Allan Ahlberg and Bruce Ingman are no strangers to the picture book trade, and here they’ve created a humorous look at what can go wrong when writing a book.

A classic book within a book scenario, as Ahlberg explores how he is writing a picture book about crocodiles, the text of which is hinted at within this book, but then things start to go wrong – the illustrator has different ideas, as does the publisher, and then a naughty girl at the printers messes it up even further. Added to this are all the various procrastinations that writers bow to – distractions out the window, family interruptions etc.

For children this is a fun and humorous look at the publishing trade. For writers, it’s a mirror. Illustrated cheerfully, this will bring a wry smile to many a face. You can buy it here.

 

Meet the…Ancient Romans by James Davies

meet the ancient romansThere is one key feature of nonfiction for children for which I am always on the lookout, and that’s the author’s ability to put over information in an accessible and concise way, no matter the scope or depth of that information. Then, of course that information has to be interesting, and explain the point well enough so that children understand and are hooked, but not provide so much detail that they get lost in reams of text.

Those looking to emulate those skills, should seek out Meet the Ancient Romans by James Davies. A vast subject to tackle, the Ancient Roman Empire spans all elements of life and hundreds of years of history – and yet Davies has managed to compact it all into a golden nugget of information for young readers.

Each book – for there is one on Ancient Egyptians too – is 64 pages, and manages to cram a huge amount into a small book, and much of that information is conveyed through explanatory and amusing illustrations.

Meet the…Ancient Romans tackles everything from Roman numerals and emperors to way of life and the army, but also addresses questions a child might have if they have already heard something of the subject matter. For example, it references that the child may have heard of Caesar, and be questioning why he isn’t mentioned on the emperors’ hall of fame page – Davies then gives the answer to this – Caesar wasn’t actually an emperor.

Above all, the book is highly visual. This is determined by the colour tone, which gives the reader their first impression – for Rome the book is red in tone, which implies tomatoes (for me anyway, which I associate with that part of the world, but also of course for the red pigment used in their villas, as well as the red material and paint which is associated with their god of war, Mars.) The Egyptian book is yellow – presumably for sand.

But more than just the large limited colour palate, Davies’ book is highly visual because each page is dominated by cartoon-like images and vignettes of people, doing the tasks described. There is immense attention to detail in these drawings – from the mighty legions in the Rome book to the depiction of mummification in the Egypt book. This is hugely impressive, but Davies has also inserted his sense of humour into the illustrations – one Roman soldier seems to have lost his uniform for example; this is a book that entertains as well as informs.

There are also comedic speech bubbles, somewhat reminiscent of Horrible Histories, although Davies’ book is for a younger audience, and is brighter, bolder and shorter!

As Davies progresses the narrative through the book, he adds more and more comments to his explanations. From Roman numerals to the army, clothing and schooling, the author uses one liners or small phrases to indicate his opinion, and it feels as if his personality is growing with the book. A sense of intimacy and shared comedy is felt with the author – a lovely touch for an information book for a young audience.

Each book ends with a very short and sweet timeline; in Ancient Romans, it depicts the beginning of Rome with Romulus and Remus to the end of the Roman Empire in AD 476 when Germany invaded. You can buy a copy here.

The companion title, Meet the Ancient Egyptians is equally buzzing with personality and information.  A fair amount of this title is spent on death and the afterlife, an obsession both of the people of the time, but also children today who are often captivated by the process of mummification, and the tombs in which the pharaohs were buried.

The series feels as if it were made to last, and should be an excellent addition to all school libraries, but also a great gift for those looking to pique children’s interest in Ancient History. I’ll be looking out for further titles…hoping for Greece and Mayans….You can buy the Ancient Egyptians book here.

Chinese New Year

Chinese New Year starts today, and this year, 2018, starts the Year of the Dog. These two wonderful new picture books celebrate aspects of the Chinese New Year.

The Chinese Emperor’s New Clothes by Ying Chang Compestine, illustrated by David Roberts

This wonderful retelling of the Hans Christian Andersen tale politicises the fairy tale, while also inverting the identity of the hero of the story. Whilst the hero is still a small boy in this version, he is also the emperor himself.

Rosy-cheeked little Ming Da becomes emperor of China at the young age of nine. But because he is so young, the ministers and advisers around him take advantage of him and steal from the treasury for their own gains. Soon, Ming Da’s kingdom is poor – the people can’t afford to dress, or buy food, but Ming Da is scared that the corrupt ministers will take over if he simply fires them.

With the help of his tailors, the boy emperor concocts a plan, and for the Chinese New Year parade, when traditionally people have dressed in new clothes so that evil spirits won’t recognise them, he tricks his ministers into wearing rice sacks and believing that the sacks are enchanted, and actually appear as the finest garments in the world.

A boy in the crowd does pipe up and shame them, but it is the emperor who has the last laugh, seeing his ministers flee in humiliation, enabling him to restore the riches to his people.

Compestine has bravely taken the origins of the tale together with a folklore element, and twisted them neatly to suit her purpose. In fact, she grew up in poverty during the Chinese Cultural Revolution, where food was scarce and Western folk and fairy tales banned.

Her book zings with both righteousness in the morality of the tale, but also in its new cultural identity and contemporary storytelling. David Roberts has created vivid, mesmerising artworks to match the tale, with colour vibrancy pared down so that the colour lives in the detail of the illustrations – the patterns of the silk robes, the intricate designs of ancient China. There is a clever switching too between full page framed illustrations and those that live in free space surrounded by white background.

The subtle colouring indicates a light touch, but also lets light onto the beautiful details of the expressive faces, as well as the sweet insertion of an observing mouse on each page. There is a guide to making your own Chinese New Year Parade robe at the back. You can buy it here.

The Great Race: The Story of the Chinese Zodiac by Christopher Corr

A complete contrast in the illustrations here, in which Corr uses his book to explain how the Chinese zodiac came to be. There is colour vibrancy from the outset, and illustrations that take on a looser, less geometric styling than Roberts’ above, but which still carry a fair amount of detail, and feel authentically Chinese, well-researched and lively.

The story begins before the delineation of time, in ancient China when the Jade Emperor decided that he wanted to be able to calculate how old he was, and thus there must be a way of measuring time.

The Great Race begins. The emperor decrees that the first twelve animals to cross the river will have a year named after them. The animals’ personalities come out in their method of crossing, from the rat who is devious to the lucky rabbit. Some of the animals even take to teamwork to get across.

This is such an appealing picturebook. An old folktale told in contemporary language, with breathtakingly colourful images – the picture of Emperor Jade welcoming the tiger across is particularly bright and evocative.

All the animals are ‘male’, which again reiterates the debate made in the Guardian last month, but this may be a nod to how the story was always traditionally told. However, as Compestine has shown above, twisting a tale is perhaps what’s now due.

Despite the male dominance in both books, these are fantastic introductions to the Chinese New Year, and beautifully illustrated. You can buy The Great Race here.