rhyming

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.

 

 

Odd Socks by Michelle Robinson and Rebecca Ashdown

Odd Socks

If a bestselling book now turned into a Christmas Day prime time TV animation simply tells the story of a stick (Stickman by Julia Donaldson), then anything is possible in a picture book. Odd Socks is a love story between a pair of socks, told in rhyming couplets for young children (and sentimental adults). With spools of humour and no whiff of smelly socks, this is an adorable new addition to any picture book collection.

Suki and Sosh are a new pair of socks. Blue and white striped with a red heel and toe. Their characters are outlined from the beginning – content, happy, warm:

“Exactly,” said Sosh to his warm, woolly wife.
“A match made in heaven! Now, this is the life.”

The artworks extend the personification further. The room is bright, colourful in extremis – with a toy box bursting with personified toys, and brightly coloured knickknacks. The underwear drawer sports a pair of y-front pants with eyes and mouth – it’s not nearly as horrific as you might envisage – even the toy dinosaur betrays a friendly grin.

The brightness spills onto the ensuing pages, with adventures galore when the pair of socks adorn their small human – partaking in all sorts of activities such as accompanying the boy to the park by being worn in all sorts of shoes – jellies and wellies…. Until the day a hole appears in Suki’s big toe. A common problem for children who wear socks!

The comedy and tragedy begin – “Oh, darn it” they curse with a wry smile, although the tragedy of Suki’s growing hole is treated like a terminal illness. Dark days indeed. A villain comes on the scene to warn of impending doom:

“Big Bob was an old sock, a real winter woolly –
a loner, a moaner, a bit of a bully.
“I’ve seen it before with my first woolly wife –
that hole was the start of the end of her life.”

More hilarity for those adults reading aloud to the children – the socks are pictured discussing the quandary on a washing line – each sock with animated expressive faces, against a bright and cheery garden backdrop. Look out for the cat and dog! The illustrations are deceptively simple – squiggles and curves – but with just the right amount of white space in between the lush colours to give shape to the book.

The story continues – I shan’t ruin the excellent surprise ending – but the humour continues unabated from both author and illustrator – the use of the word ‘odd’ in particular, the search for missing socks and slippers including the deadly tumble dryer, and the dangers of the dog.

Children will adore the action scenes depicting the dog, as well as the abundance of colour depicting the craft materials and doodled shapes that dominate the end of the book.

It’s a love story, with domestic references to charm the whole family. The rhyming and scansion are perfect – the illustrations bright and cheery. This is a sharply observed well thought out picture book – there’s nothing woolly about it. It published in hardback this week – but it’s one of those you’ll want with a hard cover, in case, like the aforementioned sock – it develops defects from overuse! You can purchase your copy here.

New Year Grit

It’s the New Year. A time for resolutions, and thoughts about what’s to come. For children it’s never too early to learn the key skills of steering your own life – personal responsibility, determination and grit.

In fact, ‘grit’ has been acknowledged recently as an important indicator of academic success. It’s a tricky one as it’s a fairly undefinable characteristic – but is associated with character traits such as resilience, and perseverance. Not hanging around for ‘good luck’ to happen, but focusing on personal growth and a drive to improve. This goes back to Albert Bandura’s definition of self-efficacy as one’s belief in the ability to succeed in a situation or to accomplish a task. The psychologist Angela Lee Duckworth’s TED talk has been fairly well touted as a definitive guide to grit. But for the young, who may not understand a full TED talk yet, there are numerous picture books that also espouse ‘grit’:

most magnificent thing

The Most Magnificent Thing by Ashley Spires
This is a wonderful picture book tale of grit. A young girl (a regular one, the author makes clear) sets out to make something, assisted by her dog. The reader isn’t sure what it will be, but the girl knows it will be something magnificent. From the cover page it’s clear that this is going to be an assemblage of junk yard items, but firstly the girl starts by drawing a plan of it.

The text is simple, playful and as everyday as possible. The reader sees that the ‘regular’ girl makes things all the time, and this will be “Easy peasy!” Hilarious illustrations accompany the text, adding an extra dimension – there is a lovely scene where the girl hires her dog as an assistant – she is posed looking over glasses at the paperwork. Then when she starts to work, her American city neighbourhood is shown in the background – the buildings in black line drawing, the characters at the front – colourful and as diverse as can be.

Then the book really springs into life with the girl’s work. The vocabulary is fabulous – she “tinkers, hammers, measures,” and later “smooths, wrenches and fiddles”. After numerous attempts it’s still nowhere near magnificent. Her face shows much grit, determination and perseverance. She re-examines, she “twists and tweaks, steadies, fixes”, and even draws a crowd. But it’s not right.

Then of course, as is natural, she loses it! She “smashes” and “jams” and “pummels” and the vocabulary becomes less and less constructive, and more and more destructive, as she fails to build what’s in her imagination. She ends up hurting herself and quits.

But after a long walk with her trusty assistant, she comes to the realisation that with careful and slow work, and no distractions, she could try again. There are some brilliant learning points here – her explosion is “not her finest moment”, her discarded inventions are found to be useful by others, the illustrations show that her imagination is piqued by what’s around her on the walk….

What she makes in the end is magnificent (even though it is not perfect, and the author is keen to point out it has taken all day) – the girl and her dog are not disappointed and nor will the reader be. This reviewer certainly found the book to be a magnificent thing.

cow climbed tree

The Cow Who Climbed a Tree by Gemma Merino
More about doing what’s deemed impossible by others and following dreams than having grit, this picture book still aims to show that unless you attempt something you won’t achieve it. In magnificent watercolour, what stands out most in this picture book is the subtlety of the illustrations versus the unsubtlety of the premise.

Tina is a curious cow who reads books and comes up with ideas. Her sisters reject each of them. Then one day Tina disappears, and in order to find her, the cow sisters must follow her example and climb trees and see where she might have gone. In the end, they too believe that anything is possible – cows can climb trees, fly and even go to the moon.

The humour inherent in the illustrations is great. When Tina looks at a book, her three sisters are pictured leaning against a tree chewing the cud languorously, eyes disbelieving. When Tina explains to them about taking a rocket to the moon, the sisters are shown eating again – but this time around a kitchen table. A disinterested mouse strolls off the other side of the page. Likewise when she explains to them ridiculously incredulous stories of her meeting a vegetarian friendly dragon at the top of the tree she climbed, they are pictured dismissively strolling up the stairs to bed (mouse too).

These cows walk on two legs – the trees are pictured with round colourful watercolour leaves, almost like balloons, and when the sisters do follow Tina, they climb behind a pig on his way to flying lessons.

It’s a cute, yet beautifully composed picture book about attempting the previously thought impossible. Buy it here.

oh places you go

Oh, the Places You’ll Go by Dr Seuss
I’m sticking a classic picture book in here. Not all book purchases need to be of new books – many of my favourites are from the back catalogues. This is a quintessential book about keeping going, because good and bad things will happen to you, but it’s all about persevering and pushing through. Written in second person – referring directly to the reader, and also in future tense as if the reader is just beginning on the journey of life:

“And when you’re in a Slump,
you’re not in for much fun.
Un-slumping yourself
is not easily done.”

What’s great is that despite all the realism within – you’ll face slumps, be left in the lurch, lose because you’re playing a game alone, you’ll spend time alone, and be confused and sometimes frightened and face problems – you’ll get through it all, and keep moving onwards – there is eternal hope and enthusiasm on each page:

“With banner flip-flapping,
once more you’ll ride high!
Ready for anything under the sky.
Ready because you’re that kind of guy!”

Classic Seuss illustrations from fantastical creatures to colourful flying balloons, weird contraptions, balancing houses, imaginative landscapes like the craziest crazy golf you ever played – it’s all here in wondrous colours. A poem to keep you going. You can buy it here.

Picture Book Round-Up

monster in the fridge

There’s a Monster in My Fridge by Caryl Hart and Deborah Allwright
Just in time for Halloween comes a hide-and-seek picture book with monsters. Green witches, werewolves and vampires abound behind split-pages in this messy, colourful and fun picture book. The text rhymes, the monsters are mischievous, jovial, and in some places, rather cute. The pictures are boldly coloured; monsters in green, purple, orange, blue – depicted firstly making a huge mess in the kitchen, and then moving through the other rooms of the house. There is lots to take in on each page – the fridge has monsters in its door compartments as well as in the main fridge and the surrounding shelves. The bathroom is particularly fun with the monster coming out the toilet, the toothpastes using toothbrushes to fight each other, and hidden skeletons with their bubble guns in the bath. A rollicking monster laugh, with some well-pitched vocabulary in the rhythmic text. You can buy it here.

i will love you anyway

I Will Love You Anyway by Mick and Chloe Inkpen
Mick Inkpen has long been a staple for first readers of picture books. Both Wibbly Pig and Kipper are household names. Now in a co-author and co-illustrator team with his daughter, rather like Shirley Hughes and Clara Vuillamy, I will Love you Anyway reads more like a poem than a picture book. Told from the perspective of a naughty dog, this a winsome tale of an irrepressible dog: one who cannot communicate well with his owners, who will not do as he’s told, but nevertheless one who is loved and loves back.

Even from the cover illustration, the dog is irresistible. Huge innocent eyes betray his inherent naughtiness, as he pulls at socks, makes a mess and nips and bites and licks. The rhyming and rhythm are spot on, with much repetition. This is a fast-paced story with humour and wit in abundance.

The illustrations are phenomenal – from the adorable little boy owner of the dog, to the various expressions of the dog, who always looks one moment away from mischief. As with all good partnerships between author and illustrator, both elements tell the story so that some aspects of plot and humour are only discovered by looking at the illustrations.

There’s even pathos as the parents (out the picture) debate the merits of keeping such a difficult dog, and the little boy and dog sit eavesdropping on the stairs. A delightful and funny end, this will be cherished by all readers. A fabulous picture book. You can buy it here.

The Burp that saved the world

The Burp That Saved the World by Mark Griffiths and Maxine Lee-Mackie
Irreverent and humorous, this reviewer is not usually one for bottom and burp jokes, but this book’s magnificent greens and oranges are rather irresistible. Ben and Matt are twins who are famous for doing massive burps. When aliens come to Earth and want to take all the children’s toys and books, the army and navy are useless to fight them. So Ben and Matt devise a plan to let off the largest burp in the history of the world, thereby scaring off the aliens.

Despite the shaky scansion on one or two pages, and the use of the American word ‘pop’ to help with rhyming, the text holds such fun ideas and vocabulary in other places, and the illustrations are so brightly coloured (particularly the street in which all the houses are different colours; the three-eyed red-jacketed aliens in their spaceships with flashing lights) that it makes for a fun read throughout. Children will love the naughtiness. You can buy it here.

oddsockosaurus

Oddsockosaursus by Zanib Mian and Bill Bolton
Another lovely premise for a picture book – a boy who feels that he’s not always understood and so attempts to make up a new dinosaur for every facet of his personality. There is Oddsockosaurus for when he just feels like wearing odd socks, Whyceratops for when he just can’t help asking question after question, and Hungryophus for when he gets a dinosaur roar in his tummy. It’s a lovely idea for those who are obsessed with dinosaurs, and also for exploring how we make and use words in the English language. The illustrations of the little boy depict him dressed up as different dinosaurs and are bold and engaging. Particular chuckles for Nevertiredophus and its accompanying illustration, as well as for Whyceratops’ question ‘Why can’t Grandma do cartwheels?’. Fun and funny. You can buy it here.

brian and the giant

Brian and the Giant by Chris Judge and Mark Wickham
Another household name, Chris Judge is the award-winning author of TiN and The Lonely Beast. Here pared with Mark Wickham for their second book about Brian Boru, who was the High King of Ireland about 1,000 years ago. There are not many picture books based on history, so this is an interesting addition to any picture book collection. In Brian and the Giant, catastrophe strikes the village when the river dries up, the houses are smashed, and there’s a dreadful smell. The villagers are perplexed, until Brian discovers that a huge smelly giant has built a dam and a bath out of their houses in order to create a bath for himself. The giant is not unfriendly though, so once his destruction has been pointed out, he works with Brian to restore the village and build a shower.

This is clearly taking a leap of faith with the whole history premise, but the depiction of resources and engineering in this picture book makes it stand out. Brian is hugely likeable and clever, and the tones of blue and greens make for a great rural Irish backdrop. This isn’t stocked on the Waterstones website, but order through your local bookstore or click through to Amazon.

 

 

 

Back to Nature

Three very different but equally intriguing books landed on my desk at the end of the summer. For three different age groups, they all demand that their readers sit up and notice what’s out the window. They may be dissimilar in their readership from each other, yet I’m grouping all three because they all share a common trait – they excite the mind about nature through their distinct illustrative styles.

lets go outside

Let’s Go Outside by Katja Spitzer
The smallest title in size, aimed at the smallest child, and designed especially to be held by the smallest hands. Although the publisher claims that this title aims to teach first words, I would add that it is useful as an inspirational tool for developing the eye – for reinforcing a toddler’s passion for ambling on a walk and looking around them, noticing things that an adult passes by with scarcely a glance. The book’s colours harp back to the 1970s with their intense vibrancy of oranges, browns, yellows and greens, and a quick flick shows that each page depicts a fairly simple word accompanied by a picture which illustrates it: flowers, insects, bird, butterfly, fruit and vegetables.

However, closer inspection – as a toddler would demand – gives a much more insightful view of what’s on display. The picture of the tree demonstrates use of pattern; the picture of the neighbour’s cat (an interesting choice – the cat belongs to someone else) shows a cat with attitude – proud and haughty – the illustrator managing this by showing the cat on tiptoes, body and head erect, eyes slightly staring up, whiskers sharp; the depiction of cherries is unexpected too – the girl is clearly eating one, although all that can be seen is the stalk poking out of her mouth. She is wearing cherries over her ears, and the buttons on her top could almost be mistaken for cherries too.

Each picture contains its own world. The positioning of the squirrel on the page following the girl on the swing suggests the same fluid motion – is swinging an exercise in being part of the landscape – soaring or leaping in the air like an animal? There is plenty to name, count and spy in the pages. The last few pages diverge off into showing seasons – a pumpkin follows leaves, which leads to a snowman – the last picture is of the garden in different seasons. You buy it here.

tree

Another book that shows the changing seasons, is Tree by Britta Teckentrup and Patricia Hegarty. This was snatched from my hands by excited children the minute it arrived. The static picture of the tree, with its die cut hole through to a picture of an owl nesting inside, stays throughout almost the entire book, with further die cuts within showing bear cubs playing, squirrels scampering, birds and insects.

However, the change from the original template of the tree is startling on each page – the slow change through the seasons represented by the number of leaves, the shape of the tree, the animals frolicking beneath and the silence of winter, and most particularly the use of different colour palates on each page from the pale frosty greens and blues and greys and whites of winter to the slow snow melting of spring, with the introduction of browns and yellow and purple as the bluebells and crocuses appear.

Britta Teckentrup portrays the subtle changes with an expert use of colour, creating an almost sensual reaction to the page. The clever layering of the die cut reflects the layering of the leaves – the increase in die cuts, with more and more animals, is in tandem with the increase in foliage as the seasons turn to summer, and then the mass of leaves before they fall in autumn. Each page contains an array of detail to spy and talk through – spring contains squirrels and fox cubs as well as many different types of flowers, leaves, insects and birds, and a changing sky, with rain or sun. The blue skies of summer change to the fading yellow light of autumn.

There is a small amount of rhyming text at the bottom of each page to explain what’s happening, with language to reflect the illustrations – the “springtime breeze” reflected in the illustration of movement in the tree – forests “abloom with flowers” reflected in the colourful flowers amassing on the page. And then of course the year begins again… “Owl sees the first new buds appear, And so begins another year…”

A simple concept, expertly executed. Both stylistically beautiful and informative. An autumnal must for every young child. You can purchase it here.

the wonder garden

Lastly The Wonder Garden, illustrated by Kristjana S Williams, written by Jenny Broom, takes illustrated books for children to a new illustrative level, with a gold embossed cover reflecting the sumptuousness of the natural world in all its glory.

Exploring five lush habitats, including the Amazon rainforest, the Chihuahuan desert and the Great Barrier Reef, Williams uses layers of vibrant colours to explore each environment – it almost feels as if one is wearing 3D glasses when reading – there is much layering in the illustrations.

On closer inspection, the illustrations are not hand-drawn and old-fashioned as they first appear, but prepared digitally, which makes sense as some of the images are repeated in the same pose, and cast over one another to simulate the variety and layering of the landscapes. The detail is exquisite, capturing the textures and patterns of different animals and birds well, although of course they are not drawn scientifically accurately, but more as drawings to ‘wonder’ at.

But it is the colours that demand attention – splashes of neon pink and oranges lending the book a magical quality. Unfortunately the text doesn’t stand up to the same scrutiny; for those children who like animal non-fiction there is nothing new here – the creatures chosen are atypical of these books, with atypical facts – a poison dart frog, a hummingbird whose heart beats 100 times a minute, the green turtle, the golden eagle with its speeds of up to 320 km an hour. There is an immediacy to the text that I liked – the author talking to the reader as if you yourself were walking through the landscape, and describing the sounds of the animals, but also including the species’ Latin names. Sadly, there are one or two typos, which I hope are corrected for the next edition.

This is definitely an inspirational piece of non-fiction – a sumptuous looking gift for curious children, which I would recommend for its ability to motivate children to be inquisitive about the world around them and then go on to explore further for more in-depth information. Click here to see the Waterstones link.

 

 

 

 

Pieces of Eight

What do you want to be when you grow up? It’s a question children ask themselves a great deal – I discussed it with some Year 1s recently. Many of them wanted to be teachers (they must have great role models), and none wanted to be librarians. (I am working on this!) Some wanted to be pirates. Although I don’t condone criminal behaviour, it was an opportunity to discuss what sort of person could be a pirate, which skills they would need, and most importantly what would pirates wear, and eat?

flinn

Captain Flinn and the Pirate Dinosaurs by Giles Andreae and Russell Ayto
An old favourite of ours – even as an eight month old baby one of our children knew when the ‘roar’ was coming in the text. Flinn is an ordinary boy who falls into a world of dinosaurs and pirates through his school art cupboard. He takes his friends with him, and before long they are fighting on behalf of Captain Stubble to rescue his beloved ship from the roaring Pirate Dinosaurs. The humour that infuses this text makes it loveable and readable – from the cowardice of Captain Stubble to the references to dinosaurs liking tomato ketchup and a dual which lasts for precisely two hours and twenty-five minutes, exhausting the T-Rex. It is a flowing adventure story packed neatly into a picture book with phenomenally rendered illustrations of pirate ships, ferocious dinosaurs, and on the final pages, a typical school room with the gentle Miss Pie. A great mix of content that children of this age devour. You can buy it here or on the Amazon sidebar.

rufus goes to sea

Rufus Goes to Sea by Kim T Griswell, illustrated by Valerie Gorbachev
Can anyone be a pirate? Rufus, a young book-loving pig, inspired by adventure stories he reads, decides to be a pirate for his summer holiday. The stereotypical pirates on board the ship, including Captain Wibblyshins with his wooden leg, and First Mate Scratchwhiskers with his eye patch, have their doubts that a pig has the right skillset to be a pirate. Finally Rufus demonstrates his one very useful skill – the ability to read – not only books but treasure maps – and is accepted on board. Packed with pirate references from yardarms to crow’s nests, Jolly Rogers to quarter decks, this will not only invigorate your child’s seafaring vocabulary, but endear them to a little pink pig who is ruthless in pursuit of his own destiny. Perseverance and reading pay off! There’s a lovely twist at the end too – the treasure it not quite what you’d expect. A lovely little story from the US. Look out too for the very colourful, detailed illustrations. Buy it here from Waterstones, or click through to Amazon.

pirates in pyjamas

Pirates in Pyjamas by Caroline Crowe and Tom Knight
So pirates come in all shapes and sizes, and need to be able to read, but what do they wear? Caroline Crowe wonders what pirates wear when they sleep in this playful new rhyming picture book.  The book leads the reader rather merrily to bed, describing which pyjamas the pirates might wear, what they do in the bath (make shark fins with the shampoo in their hair), what a pirate pyjama party might look like, and how they finally get to sleep. The last rhyme is rather cute, for smaller pirates everywhere:
“So if you want to be a pirate,
you don’t need a patch or sword.
You just need your best pyjamas,
and a bed to climb aboard.”
The illustrations are touchingly sentimental – two young friends or siblings sharing a bedroom, decorated with pirate paraphernalia – even the teddy has an eye patch. The pirates come in all shapes and sizes – bearded, thin, fat, large and small, pale, dark, exotic, and with different facial expressions too – a source of wonder and excitement for little readers. It’s colourful and fun. This book publishes in mid August 2015. You can buy it here.

pizza for pirates

Pizza for Pirates by Adam and Charlotte Guillain, illustrated by Lee Wildish
Lastly, what pirates eat! Part of the ongoing picture book series about George, including Spaghetti with the Yeti and Marshmallows for Martians, the authors continue their foody adventures. George sets off armed with a pizza to win over a pirate crew. He takes some time to find the crew, firstly being swallowed by a whale, whose stomach contents suggest that it too has had dalliance with pirates, and then landing on an island. Along with a helpful parrot, George finally finds his pirate crew, digs up some treasure, and saves them from a sea monster (with the assistance of his now soggy pizza). Also, as above, using a bed to represent a boat, the authors have used home props to make the adventure familiar. George’s bedroom also has a teddy with an eye patch, pirate dress up props and some themed lamps and curtains. There is no end to the brightness here – mermaids, fish, cartoon crabs and starfish, and an ending that looks like the most terrific pool party. Lots to look at, I can imagine this being a firm bedtime favourite. You can buy it here or on the Amazon sidebar.

As I recently pointed out, much of our ‘pirate’ cultural heritage stems from Treasure Island. Stevenson’s inspiration for the story was a map drawn by a child, and ever since there have been a plethora of fictional references to treasure maps, x marking the spot, and dastardly pirates, all descended from the ever-lasting Long John Silver and his search for treasure. (Note: Robert Louis Stevenson first called the story The Sea Cook – one has to wonder if the story would have endured in the same way with this flat alternative title).