rhyming

Social Action Picture Books

I do firmly believe that starting out with an agenda is not the best way to write a book, but often a cause or an issue catches our attention because of the story behind it. The media know this all too well – putting a human face to a crime, building a narrative around Brexit, giving story examples of health crises are the way we engage with issues. We need stories.

These clever picture books may be issue-based, but they win over the reader with their subtle blend of picture and text, with their bold narratives.

Homelessness:
the old manThe Old Man by Sarah V and Claude K Dubois

A skilful mix of tender illustrations and sparse text portray this issue with pathos and intelligence. Homeless people often feel invisible, and the gentle pencil sketching and sepia tones of this picture book lend an invisibility to the homeless man, but also give the book a sophistication and elegance that makes it attractive.

The book starts with daylight and a girl rising from her bed within her house, but flits quickly to the homeless man also starting his day, in the rain and ignored. It portrays his struggle with hunger and cold, his awkwardness and shame, his loneliness.

For much of the book, the people remain faceless – shown from waist down, or blurred in the rain. It is only at the end when there is human connection between the little girl and the homeless man, that the features begin to be defined. It is one act of human kindness that gives the homeless man the warmth and humanity to go to a shelter, and be recognised for who he is.

This is a brave and touching story, and an excellent picture book for allowing children to explore an issue and see that people are more than just their outward appearance. You can buy it here.

Gender Roles:
looking after williamLooking After William by Eve Coy

This humorously illustrated story takes a look at domestic roles and the workload of a parent in a warm and engaging manner.

The little girl of the story decides to act as ‘mummy’ to William, her stay-at-home Dad. She not only performs everyday tasks, but also sees his potential to be whatever he wants to be when he grows up.

The reader will adore her attempts to look after him – making him breakfast but spilling the milk all over the table, giving him exercise by making him tow her up the hill on his bike, and generally ‘looking after’ him by making him push her in the swing, or take her round the supermarket in the trolley. Her grown up jobs include building blocks, and making tea for her toys.

It’s a gorgeous portrayal of domestic life, with immense wit and warmth. In the end, the little girl decides that her Dad only wants one job, despite all the wonderful things he could achieve – and that, of course, is being her Dad. Uplifting and cute, and dominated with shades of blue, green and yellow – like a soft lamp casting a warm hue across the page. You can buy it here.

Animal Conservation:
hello helloHello Hello by Brendan Wenzel

Wenzel’s first picture book, They All Saw A Cat, took the perspective of the animal in viewing the world and illustrated each page accordingly. Hello Hello also gives animals shape and zest, showing the animal world in amazing variety – in colour, but also in action, with animals leaping, flying, twisting, turning and dancing across the white pages. Reminiscent of Lucy Cousin’s Hooray For Fish with its similar sparsity in rhyming text; the animals address each other with descriptive greetings: ‘Hello Stripes, Hello Spots, Hello Giant, Hello Not’. But Wenzel’s sparklingly colourful exploration of animal life takes the illustrations further by using a huge range of media including cut out paper shapes, oil pastel, computer graphic.

The message is simple – that the animals all share certain traits, despite their vast differences. Many of the creatures featured are endangered and Wenzel lists the animals at the back, stating whether they are vulnerable or not. A vibrant call to action. You can buy it here.

is it a mermaidIs it a Mermaid? By Candy Gourlay and Francesca Chessa

A tale of identity and imagination, in that Benji and Bel find a strange creature on their beach, and although they know it is a dugong, Bel goes along with the dugong’s story when she claims to be a mermaid. The humour lies in the illustrations, which represents the dugong as a fairly lumpen animal, about as far removed from mythical ideas of the mermaid as possible.

When Benji’s negativity causes the dugong to cry, he realises he’s been insensitive, and plays along too. The illustrations are colourful, particularly of the undersea world, and beautifully atmospheric, especially in the change in light depending on time of day, but they also bear out a childlike simplicity. What’s more the children and the dugong are constantly active – so that the picture book feels alive and exuberant.

At the end, the authors remind the reader that both dugongs and sea grass habitats are under threat, and give resources for how to help. Save the world here.

 

Environment Conservation:
the coral kingdomThe Coral Kingdom by Laura Knowles and Jennie Webber

Through simple rhyme, this book manages to explore facts about the coral reef, portraying the colour, diversity and life cycle of the ecosystem. Each page has a simple sentence accompanied by the most detailed and colourful illustration. In this way the book both informs and inspires.

There is much to take in – the dive of the dugong, homes of polyps, sea stars and mantas, turtles and minke whales. The colours and textures are plain to see, and the interweaving of the different creatures and plants make for quite a spectacle.

The shock comes over halfway through, when the beautiful colours are gone – bleached by the warming seas. The remainder of the book explores what humans need to do to protect this environment, with a beautiful pull out spread of how it should be, accompanied by information about conservation on the reverse. From the winners of the Margaret Mallett Award for Children’s Non-Fiction, this is a perfect picture book to teach first steps to conservation. See the coral here.

when the bees buzzed offWhen the Bees Buzzed Off! By Lula Bell, illustrated by Stephen Bennett

With a die-cut front cover, and lift the flaps throughout, this is a nifty book for young children about discovering nature. The insects inside the book are frantic that the bees have disappeared – told in an array of speech bubbles, accompanied by short narrative sentences.

The authors have had fun here: the insects are imbued with personality, and pretentions of comic wit: “the search is fruit-ile” says one, a joke wasted on the very young but wry for the adult reader. Other jokes suit the readership better – the jealousy of tadpoles at different stages, the lying spider.

In the end, the insects learn that bees need certain flowers to enable pollination, and without them our world would be poorer in many ways. You can buy it here.

Inspiring a New Generation of Space Experts

Stephen Hawking once declared that his goal was simple: “It is a complete understanding of the universe, why it is as it is and why it exists at all.” At what point do we begin to wonder about the universe, and when to want to understand it? Young readers in the library are often my most inquisitive. The five and six year olds gravitate towards non-fiction, asking questions about genes and trees, dinosaurs and evolution. And they have only to look up at the night sky to ask the big questions.

space kidsSpace Kids: An Introduction for Young Explorers by Andrea De Santis and Steve Parker
Space Kids introduces each element with a first person narrative voice. Nebula speaks first, explaining it is a wispy cloud of gas and dust. Then come Star and Constellation, Solar System and Asteroid. The text is clear and matter-of-fact with small tidbits of information. Steve Parker is a veteran of such non-fiction, and his clarity shines through.

The illustrations, showing a range of children exploring and enjoying their learning, changes tack halfway through, with a strange, almost futuristic look on the double page spread about rocks – narrated by Ariane 5.

The book then reverts to its colourful, child-friendly appearance towards the end, although finishes on a bit of a dud note with the page entitled ‘You’: vastly unnecessary and somewhat patronising.

What’s interesting is that the book leaves the impression of giving a general appreciation of Earth and space rather than imparting bucketloads of knowledge. But perhaps, at this age, some inspiration is necessary – inspiring curiosity is a major asset. You can buy it here.

once upon a starOnce Upon A Star by James Carter and Mar Hernandez
Told in rhyming poetry, this is another non-fiction book that bends to narrative and creative forms to impart information.

The poem tells the story of how the Earth was created, from emptiness and nothing to the Big Bang and through to the formation of the Earth and all that dwells upon it. It’s a feat of ingenuity that the rhyme and rhythm expertly tell the story while remaining true to their forms, and this alone is impressive.

But matching that is the brightness of the images, the almost retro-colour palette that also delights and inspires – the constant use of lines to indicate bursts of sun or energy, and a playfulness with the typeface that swirls the words around the page, whilst always maintaining legibility. It is smart to look at as well as to read.

This book, as the one above, aims to inspire as much as educate, although it gives the ‘sciencey’ bit at the end with some key facts spelt out acrostically.

This book leads to exploration and discovery and is beautifully produced. If read enough at bedtime, it could definitely inspire a future astrophysicist. You can buy it here.

Although both books show that science and the arts can mesh successfully, by taking narrative or poetic forms, sometimes the factual information given can feel a little light. For other space books, check out this blog here.

Let Them Eat Cake!

There’s a lot of cake in publishing: book launches have their fair share of wine, but there is a trend too for book-themed cakes and cupcakes. Has cake hit the zeitgeist because of the Great British Bake Off? Or is it just a perpetual British tradition?

Those looking after children have long known the effect of baking a cake with youngsters – you may end up with flour all over the kitchen, but it teaches science and maths, and there’s always a treat at the end. These picture books have captured the moment:

i really want the cakeI Really Want the Cake by Simon Philip and Lucia Gaggiotti

It’s so terribly tempting. A luscious chocolate cake has been made and is sitting on the table. There is no one around. Who could resist?

The little girl is intent upon having her cake and eating it in this endearing rhyming picture book. So much so, that just licking is not enough, and she resorts to eating the entire thing, (despite her mother’s note informing her not to), and then attempting to rectify her mistake by baking another.

Not only is the story terrifically entertaining, and written in such an enticing way that the reader simply has to read the story out loud with the correct inflection, but the illustrations match the tone completely.

This picture book hits every taste bud perfectly – because although the premise is simple, the execution is as flawless as smooth chocolate fudge icing, and the small details all piped on perfectly. Note the cakes instead of pupils in the little girl’s eyes, the dog a complicit partner in crime, and the exquisite mix of mischievousness, wicked intent, culpability and cuteness of the protagonist. There’s a recipe at the back for those who wish to also make a cake as an apologetic gift for their mother! Top prize. Devour it here.

Cake by Sue Hendra and Paul Linnet

One of my little book testers stopped eating peas a couple of years ago, and I’m sure it’s got something to do with Sue Hendra’s Supertato books and the evil nemesis within – Evil Pea. So, we were both eager to read Cake, Sue Hendra’s latest book.

Cake has been invited to his first ever birthday party, but feels he looks plain. He buys a hat with candles on top, on the advice of his friend Fish, and goes to the birthday party, where the hosts have been long awaiting him. The reader has a slight inkling that Cake maybe isn’t prepared for what’s about to happen, and may be awfully relieved when he escapes as the candles are extinguished. There’s a neat sting to the tail though in the final twist – if readers have a vivid imagination, then things could get quite nasty!

The sense of humour prevails throughout, in the plot and the illustrations: from the penguin shop assistant to Cake riding his bicycle, to the absorbing emotions of Cake’s face.

This is a delicious book, warm, witty, and bearing the authors’ joint bold and brilliant styles. If the little testers ask for Cake over and over, and yet they’re not talking about the edible kind, you know you’re onto a winner. Buy yours here.

Great Bunny Bakes by Ellie Snowdon

Watchers of that famous television programme will notice something similar in this Bunny Bake Off book, in which Quentin the wolf enters a competition designed for baking rabbits (no, not rabbit pie, but bunnies who bake). The wolf loves baking, but has to disguise himself as a rabbit to enter.

Luckily for the bunnies, Quentin is much more interested in perfecting each round of baking rather than eating rabbits, and before long has shown off his bread loaf and his wibbly wobbly trifle. But one particular bunny is jealous and aims to sabotage the rest of the competition. Quentin survives this slight, and slipping on a banana skin, and eventually being outed as a wolf, and still emerges the triumphant winner, winning not only the competition but some bunny friends too.

The tone is light and fluffy, the illustrations rich and full of incident, and there’s a nice sprinkling of kindness throughout. Snowdon is adept at adding in as many extras as she can, from honeybees swarming the honey buns to cherries popping from the trifles, all of which add to a general feeling of busyness, mayhem and delight in the baking. This is a very tasty debut. You can buy it here.

 

 

My Autumn Picture Book Round Up 2017

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

oi cat

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

nothing rhymes with orange

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

squirrels who squabbled

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

the wolf the duck and the mouse

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

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

hic

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

lines

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

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

 

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.

Family Love

Under the Love Umbrella by Davina Bell, illustrated by Allison Colpoys
I’m not one for sentimental stuff, as those who know me will verify. And I’m not won over by simplistic declarations of love – usually in my fiction I like a little darkness too. But this is a captivating picture book, which supplies the darkness in the illustrations – by contrasting it with the effervescent light, as seen on the cover.

In short, the book is about being loved. When you’re lost in the world, the narrator speaks as if they’re the person who will be there – holding your hand, the other end of the phone, supplying your forgotten PE Kit. But that’s not what makes this book special. Firstly, although there are different characters shown within, and the idea is abstract rather than specific – the children are given names in an illustration at the start of the book – so we’re familiar with them before any story begins.

Then the use of colour – the vivid neons of the illustrations, often set against extremely pale and muted or dark and menacing backgrounds – so that the lightness of love and the kindness in the world is shown in bright brilliant colour. And the ideas within are tangible, real. The bad things in life are clearly delineated: a dog barking too loudly, an argument with a friend, feeling left out, or simply scared of the dark, against the good comforting things: a mother tucking in a child at bedtime, flying a kite, being comforted with a story, being together as a family.

The characters are a diverse mix – all cultures, all ages. Even the text comforts – the gentle rhythm, like swaying in a breeze, and the gentle rhyming – the expected falling into place. For nights when you need a hug – this is it – in a book. You can buy it here.

We Are Family by Patricia Hegarty, illustrated by Ryan Wheatcroft
Another exploration of the love that can be found in families. This book aims to show – through a series of mini illustrations on each page – the different families that exist and the comfort they can give. Again, a mix of peoples, ages and races can be found in the illustrations here – two Dads, large families, single mothers, ethnically diverse.

There’s a theme here though – each family is shown on each page in a small vignette – with a different activity, spelled out in the text. So in the first spread, the families are seen in different weathers – from playing in a paddling pool to braving the storm. The next page is the families eating – be it in front of the television, or flipping a pancake together, or sitting round a dining table.

Other pages lay out modes of travel, feeling ill, leisure pursuits, and – the page in which things go wrong: One family suffers a flood, another a lost dog, another a broken arm. It’s both slightly humorous and rather compelling. Of course the message is that together we are stronger – in our family units we can overcome.

If you can get over the rather saccharine text, this is a touching little book, and the many many illustrations will entertain for a long time, and provide first steps in visual literacy – spotting narrative and spotting differences between what each family does. You can purchase it here.

Alison Hubble by Allan Ahlberg and Bruce Ingman

Alison Hubble

What makes a good picture book? It’s a question that plagues writers, illustrators and publishers of course. Unlike a novel, where it might take me some time to work out if I’m going to review it favourably and what it is that grabs me, with picture books that drop through my post box, it tends to be an instantaneous reaction.

Is it the concept, the re-readability, the illustrations, the characters, the rhythm, the humour? Whatever magic wielded here by experienced writer and illustrator duo Ahlberg and Ingman, this picture book worked from the moment I saw the cover.

The concept of Alison Hubble is, in itself, fairly genius – partly because the concept feeds into the rhythm of the book – the two are inseparable, full title being: This is the story of Alison Hubble who went to bed single and woke up double.

The story begins in the endpapers – Alison, a delightfully ordinary little girl with pink pyjamas and blonde hair kisses her mother goodnight whilst the cat looks on mischievously – told only through illustration. The title then kicks off the text – and Alison Hubble wakes up double. The cleverness of the rhyme sells the title straight away:

“Woke up with a twin
In her single bed.
“Who are you?” “Who are you?”
She said, she said.”

The cleverness of course is Ahlberg’s play with words throughout – from the use of numerical words, to the use of double entendres within the English language, from the mother describing what has happened to Alison as a very ‘singular’ event, to Alison’s speech:

“But what to wear?
Yes, that’s the trouble.
I’m in two minds,
said Alison Hubble.”

I can’t resist a rhyming picture book – they are a pleasure to read aloud and enable the listener or reader to guess what is coming next with ease. There is fun too, with the illustrations showing Alison’s delight at what has occurred and then the slight doubt as the two Alisons squabble over who is really Alison. But then, to the reader’s surprise, Ahlberg takes his joke to the next level by doubling Alison again…and again. And then it becomes as much a book about numbers and maths as it does about humour, fun, and cleverness.

Ingman is also let loose – with his subtle drawings of multiple Alisons and her environment, especially when multiple Alisons set off and off and off etc for school – each Alison the same and yet dressed slightly differently, and then answering the register call at school from all over the classroom.

His illustrations are reminiscent of those in The Pencil, where the world grew exponentially during the story, in the same way that Alison grows (in an unusual way) here. There is so much detail to take in on each page – from the other schoolchildren gawping at Alisons, to the cut-through of her house, and of course the many many Alisons, all the same and yet individuals too – and it is this subtle rendering of ‘clones’ all with their own personalities, that makes the book so clever, and so interesting.

Ahlberg has great fun with the ending too, along the way involving press, football team analogies and the hilarious despair of her parents. It’s all rather amusing.

And clever at the same time – Alison does her doubling wrong, and the reader must spot the mathematical error – and there is a cheeky school boy who answers to Alison’s name too, as well as some funny placards, and more play on words with newspaper headlines.

The last double page illustration is ripe for counting Alisons – my test child readers all did this – before demanding re-reads.

A new classic – a brilliantly tongue-in-cheek and smart picture book.

You can buy it here.

The Lollies

Nearly two thirds of children aged between 6-17 years say that when choosing books to read, they want books that make them laugh, according to Scholastic’s Kids and Family Reading Report 2015. So it was with some dismay that the children’s book publishing world watched the closure of the Roald Dahl Funny Book Prize last year.

However, in its place come the Lollies – The Laugh Out Loud Book Awards, launched by Scholastic in 2015 – and supported by Michael Rosen and the Book Trust. The shortlist was announced in February, and voting is now open for teachers to register votes on behalf of their classes and schools. The links and voting deadlines are at the bottom of the article. There are three categories: Picture books; 6-8yrs, and 9-13yrs. Here follow reviews of the four shortlisted picture books.

Best Laugh Out Loud Picture Book

hoot owl

Hoot Owl, Master of Disguise by Sean Taylor and Jean Jullien
This bright, distinctive book with deceptively simple-looking illustrations is a hoot from the start. The eyes give it all away throughout this cleverly paced picture book, which is a delight for adults and children.

Telling the story of Hoot Owl, who disguises himself to pounce on his prey, Sean Taylor takes an older narrative concept and warps it for the younger age group. Although a picture book, the text reads, unusually for this format, in first person construct and with an extremely unreliable narrator. Hoot Owl tells his own story, awarding himself the title of ‘master of disguise’; this owl is not just wise. In fact this rhyming refrain is key to the story, as each disguise is more and more ridiculous and unwise, and each plan is unsuccessful, despite the owl’s keen boasting.

He dresses as a carrot to entice a rabbit, and a sheep to entice….a lamb. The costumes are of course blatant humour for the child reader, but the text keeps the adult amused with its tongue-in-cheek poking at ‘real’ literature conceits:

“The night has a thousand eyes, and two of them are mine.”

And

“The terrible silence of the night spreads everywhere.
But I cut through it like a knife.”

Even children will giggle at “The lamb is a cuddly thing, but soon I will be eating it.” Particularly when they view the accompanying illustration of a cute white lamb with glasses, set against a black backdrop. A simpler, more innocent looking lamb you could not find.

The eyes win the story through – in each case Hoot Owl’s eyes looking askance at his prey, or the wide-eyed stare at the reader. And the ending – well the ending is a child-perfect solution. An excellent shortlist title. A big ter-wit-ter-woo. You can hoot for it below and buy it here.

slug needs a hug

Slug Needs a Hug by Jeanne Willis and Tony Ross
Two colossi of the children’s book world, Willis and Ross, also lead with an unconventional main character in their latest picture book. Slug Needs a Hug – the concept is in the title – anyone who comes across a slug will be loath to touch it and anyone who knows children is aware that slugs remain a source of fascination and disgust.

In this story, though, pathos abounds as even slug’s mother won’t hug him. His glum face and cute sticky up eyes provoke empathy from the beginning, and Willis cleverly portrays him with a mixture of this interest and grossness with her rhyming text:

“Once upon a time-y,
There was a little slimy,
Spotty, shiny, whiny slug.”

He is at once unappealing and pathetic, yet needy of our love and attention. Her subversiveness in making words rhyme by adding a ‘y’ is a giggle-factor in itself. This book too relies on disguise, as the slug asks other creatures for help, and then in order to be more like them – cuter – he dresses up in aspects of their demeanour – “to make himself more huggable, less slithery and sluggable”. He dons a furry jacket to seem more catlike (as well as a hat with a picture of a cat on it), and trotters like the pig, and a string moustache – like the goat’s handsome goatee beard.

Of course the irony is clear – none of these other creatures is particularly cuddly either (note the cow and its udders) – and Ross paints them as being rather arrogant and vain – the picture of the goat posing, stroking his beard, is simply perfection.

Slug’s lack of self-esteem and thoughts of his own ugliness are banished in the end – his mother’s reason for not hugging him is again, the perfect ending to a picture book. Complete common sense. You can hug a slug here.

gracie grabbit

Gracie Grabbit and the Tiger by Helen Stephens
One of our favourite picture books is How to Hide a Lion, so it comes as no surprise that Gracie Grabbit is equally well-drawn and adorable. The themes continue – big cats and burglars – but in a new story with another tantalisingly oddbod heroine.

Gracie Grabbit’s defining feature is that her father is a robber, and Stephens is at great pains to point out how naughty this is. On a day out to the zoo, Gracie’s Dad can’t help steal things from people and animals, but when his back is turned, Gracie returns all the items. The only problem – she returns them to the wrong owners, with surprising results.

Laughs come from all over the place with this book – from the stereotypical eye mask and stripy top that the robber wears no matter where he is, to the stance of little Gracie who is forever wagging her finger at her naughty Daddy or telling on him. Her cuteness, of course, contrasts hugely with the naughtiness of her father.

But the concept is what wins the giggles. Gracie’s Dad steals the silliest things and Gracie gives them back blatantly incorrectly: a wet fish back to the baby, the rattle to the snake, the egg to the lady and the hat to the penguins. The expressions are priceless, the egg on the lady’s head a wonderful illustration. And then of course there’s the winsome tiger.

The crowd at the zoo seem very old-fashioned, as does the tale itself which is sweet and wholesome in the end – naughtiness is punished. Modern touches abound though, as Stephens is good at including diversity, and brightness in her illustrations. Hugely enjoyed by the children testing it here – maybe because of the familiarity of the illustrator, but also surely for the fun in the robber getting his comeuppance, and the child being wiser and more well-behaved than the adult. A good tiger tale. You can buy it here.

i need a wee

I Need a Wee! by Sue Hendra and Paul Linnet
More big guns from the picture book world, Sue Hendra can do no wrong – from Supertato to Barry the Fish with Fingers, Hendra is another household name. This title though, as with the slug, the robber and the pomposity of Hoot Owl, takes a subject that is fairly taboo, and makes it the dominant characteristic of the book. The cover illustration of a teddy bear holding himself with his legs in the ‘need a wee’ position sums it up, and is appealing immediately (to a young child).

The brightness of the book – the cover is a luminous yellow with pink and green lettering, with a beautifully textured bear – continues throughout, as the story follows a group of toys and in particular our bear, Alan (even the name is comical for a teddy). He is having a fun day out, but needs a wee.

As is common with pre-schoolers, Alan is too engrossed in what he is doing to make the time to go and wee – the world is just too exciting. From queuing for a slide (then not wanting to leave the queue as he’s nearly at the front) to attending a tea party, and then reaching the toilet only to find a queue there too – this is a hilarious little story.

The touches in the illustrations are excellent – Linnet’s penguin blowing a party horn, the wind up toys, and those on springs, the size difference between Alan and dolly (who kindly invites him back to her house to use her toilet, only to find of course that the doll’s house is tiny).

Alan looks like a well-loved worn toy, which only adds to the charm, and Hendra excels in the items that Alan wants to resort to weeing into to alleviate himself – a teapot, a hat….

The ending is well-executed and very funny indeed. Watch out too for the blob who comes second place in the dance competition. This is a book that made me smile despite being entirely toilet humour! You can spend a penny on it here!

You can buy the books and vote NOW. Children will decide the ultimate winners in each category with their class votes (see here and parents can read information on how to get involved here.) Voting closes on the 10th June 2016.

The other categories are as follows:

Best Laugh Out Loud Book for 6-8 year olds

Badly Drawn Beth by Jem Packer and Duncan McCoshan

Wilf the Mighty Worrier: Saves the World by Georgia Pritchett and Jamie Littler

The Jolley-Rogers and the Cave of Doom by Jonny Duddle

Thorfinn the Nicest Viking and the Awful Invasion by David MacPhail and Richard Morgan

Best Laugh Out Loud Book for 9-13 year olds.

Danger is Still Everywhere: Beware of the Dog by David O’Doherty and Chris Judge

Petunia Perry and the Curse of the Ugly Pigeon by Pamela Butchart and Gemma Correll

Emily Sparkes and the Friendship Fiasco by Ruth Fitzgerald

The Parent Agency by David Baddiel and Jim Field

 

With thanks to Scholastic for the books, and related information. 

Before I Wake Up by Britta Teckentrup

Before I Wake Up cover

Britta Teckentrup has illustrated more than 80 children’s picture books, and this latest, Before I Wake Up is one of her best. It has a soothing, dream-like quality, encapsulating the essence of the idea, which is a book that portrays a child’s nighttime in the most reassuring way possible. It follows the dreamscape of a little girl, accompanied by her toy lion, and taking ideas and articles from her life with her – yet distorting everything slightly – as happens in dreams.

Like in Teckentrup’s picture book about the changing seasons, Tree, the colour palate blends and merges like a tonal rainbow, from the intensity of a dark night to the encroaching glow of morning. By using collage – layers of transparent images – the dreamlike quality escalates, the further into the book the reader goes.

Although a typical journey of a children’s book, it is the clever use of imagery that pulls. The moon transforms into a hot air balloon – pulling the child’s bed through her subconscious with a dreamy consistency. Other images are repeated and warped slightly, yet soothe and reassure; the toy lion is a companion who leads the little girl through the night. The lion grows in the dreamscape, but as a protector rather than a predator – putting his arms around the child in the storms.

There is an innate sensitivity to the images, pared with rhyming text that contains a multitude of soothing words, such as gaze, stars, song, rocking, safe, kisses.

The face of the little girl in repose both absorbs this stillness and also offers assurances. The dazzling brightness of daytime comes into play in the final pages, the yellow hue so powerful it is as if you really have opened your eyes from a dream. Wonderful stuff. For anyone who’s ever had a worrying, sleepless night.

Below, Doris Kutschback, Editor-in-Chief of the publishers, Prestel Junior, explains how the book came about.

Can you give some background information as to how the book was created?

When Britta showed me the book she had already worked on it for a long time. It was a project of the heart. I was very excited by it straight away and we sat down together and selected the spreads that would make it into the final book out of a vast selection of images.

The book is a 56pp picture book and not a typical 32pp picture book… why have you chosen a longer format?

The rhythm of the story didn’t allow for it to be cut down to 32pp. How can you travel through a whole night if you’re limited to 12 spreads?

Was the original text written in German or English (Britta was born and lives in Germany)?

It was written in English and it was not that easy to translate the English rhymes into German.

What do you love about the book?

I mainly love the soft tones and how the lion gives the girl strength with his subtle tenderness. I love the soft flow of the images as they guide you through the night. It’s all very harmonious without ever getting boring.  The mood is perfect for this subject matter. I also really like the paper and the whole look and feel of the book…it all works together very well.

Have you got a favourite page?

My personal favourite is – ‘…I wish I could stay in this wilderness…’

fav spread

Is there anything you would have done differently?

No!

What was it like working together with Britta on this book?

She’s perfect! Super professional, super relaxed and unpretentious…She is a fantastic artist and isn’t a diva but always very modest which makes working with her a great joy. I enjoy brainstorming with her and I have got the feeling that we are on the same wavelength – we always understand immediately what the other person is talking about.

Britta 1Britta in her studio

Thanks so much to Prestel for providing the interview and the book review copy. You can visit Britta’s website at www.brittateckentrup.com or find her on twitter @BTeckentrup. You can purchase a copy of Before I Wake Up… here

 

Perfect Pictures in Picture Books

Another sterling month for children’s books – there aren’t enough weeks of the year to feature all the books of the week that I’d like. So here’s a roundup of some excellent early 2016 picture books. With illustrations that ooze charm.

what will danny do

What Will Danny Do Today? By Pippa Goodhart and illustrated by Sam Usher

Do your children pore over You Choose or Just Imagine? This wonderful new book from the same author allows the child to choose what Danny will do. It’s a normal day for Danny – he’s going to school, but the reader makes all those delicious decisions – everything from the small detail of what he should eat for breakfast to how he should travel to school.

The questions in the text aren’t boring either – not ‘Will he have toast or cereal?’ but exquisitely worded – ‘Will he pick a crunchy, chewy or wobbly breakfast?’ and my favourite ‘Which book will Danny take to bed?’. There’s wonderful empathy at play, as when his Dad comes to pick Danny up from school, there are no questions, just a simple ask for the reader to spot him (clue: he’s wearing a green jacket). It’s not too hard either – no worrying for Danny at the end of the school day.

Of course the choices are led by the pictures – Sam Usher’s illustrations feel old-fashioned, soft and familiar. The faces of his people are full of expression, reminiscent of children drawn by Quentin Blake (such as Sophie in The BFG), but more and more distinctive to Sam Usher too (particularly his older people). But it’s the attention to detail that shows off Sam’s craft. Choosing what to wear from Danny’s overflowing wardrobe, or what to eat from the jam-packed kitchen, or how to get to school (you could even choose the penny-farthing or the UFO! – one child is using a zip-wire to reach school). The depiction of teachers in the staffroom (yes, you can even choose Danny’s teacher) is hilarious – I’m still undecided between Shakespeare, the monkey, or the young lady with the tower of books (is that me, Sam?).

Simply hours of fun. This is one book I shan’t be giving away to any child. It’s all mine! Published this week, choose to buy it here.

too many carrots

Too Many Carrots by Katy Hudson

Another book, in which for me, the illustrations MAKE the book. Rabbit loves carrots, to the extent that (rather like a certain someone with books) they are taking over his burrow. He collects them wherever he goes. One day he realises he needs somewhere else to sleep –there is simply no room left in his burrow. Each of his friends is most welcoming – until he overloads their houses with carrots too, and inadvertently breaks them (bird’s nest is particularly susceptible). So rabbit has to learn his lesson – with a stick rather than a carrot. He discovers that rather than collecting carrots – sharing is the way to go.

The depth of each illustration is marvellous – from the landscape of wild flowers behind rabbit’s carrot patch, to the mountain of his carrot collection to the terrible collapse from too many carrrots in beaver’s house. But it’s not just the detail and scope of each carrot horde in each setting – but the wonderful depiction of the animals and their reactions to events. The facial recognition of each emotion is there for the young reader – comfort, enjoyment, irritability, anger, discomfort, shame….it’s fabulous.

Pay particular attention to the title page (complete with Keep Calm and Carrot On sign, a few carroty books, and rabbit’s own to do list).

To teach sharing, to enjoy the artwork, or simply for a tight little story – this is a gem of a picture book. Buy your carrot (I mean book) here.

little why

Little Why by Jonny Lambert

A fascinatingly feel-good title for young readers that carries two important messages without resorting to preaching. Little Why is a small elephant who is told by his parents to ‘keep in line’ on the way to the watering hole. This little toddler elephant is bursting with questions about the other animals he sees though, and strays more than once, only to find himself face to face with a hungry crocodile.

He learns important messages about the merits of his own species (loving oneself) – the other animals may have appealing features such as “long lofty leggy legs” like the giraffe, or “speedy-spotty fuzzy fur” like the cheetah, but Little Why discovers he is perfect the way he is – with his “flippy-flappy ears, and super-squirty trunk”. He also learns not to run off from his parents, for although there is a ferocious snappy crocodile on the loose, if his parents are near, then he can be swiped out of reach.

Jonny Lambert is a master of colour, pushing the boundaries with his use of white space around the images, and superbly giving context and texture to his grey elephants with strokes and lines – repeated in the other animals, but drafted to perfection on the elephants, who otherwise would be dull grey. Lambert uses the animals’ body language to convey as much emotion as their facial features – the trunk is a giveaway symbol for Little Why, but also the shape and angle of the birds throughout. It’s a touching little picture book, and could easily become a household favourite. You can buy it here.

supermarket gremlins

Supermarket Gremlins by Adam and Charlotte Guillain, illustrated by Chris Chatterton

Can Adam and Charlotte do no wrong? I seem to be writing their names frequently in my recommendation lists. This is a small gamble, as readers of my generation have a special place in our hearts for gremlins (we know not to feed them after midnight, and never to get them wet), but will the next generation (the intended readership) be equally charmed?

Supermarket Gremlins is a lift-the-flap book with the cute variety of gremlins invading the shelves, and trolleys, and eventually the shopping bags so that they can come home with you. The beauty of the book is the mum’s complete obliviousness to their presence – it is the boy who notices their mayhem and mischievousness (and the reader by lifting the flap on the pictures). From submerging themselves in water in the cleaning bucket (the gremlin blows his cheeks out with endearing cuteness) to the naughty gremlins emptying out packets of cereal, burping in the cheese, eating all the chocolate spread (wait, are they gremlins or children!).

It’s a really fun title, with rhyming text, such as things you’ve “forgotten”, matching with finding a “gremlin’s bottom” – the Guillains have nailed this one. Chris Chatterton’s illustrations are slightly retro in feel – an old style supermarket with piles of tins, and a house at the end with a tyre swinging from a tree. But the main fun of course is finding all the gremlins – and the publishers have really gone to town here – there are numerous flaps on each page, varying in size, with lots of funny pictures hiding behind. Hugely enjoyable, the illustrations are both mischievous and compelling – just like children. Feed yours before midnight here.