size

Highest Mountain Deepest Ocean by Kate Baker and Zanna Davidson, illustrated by Page Tsou

highest-mountain-deepest-ocean

The introduction to this over-size book tells the reader that it is a story of superlatives. The longest this, the largest that. It’s a celebration of the natural world, exploring amazing feats of nature, wonders around us, and inspirational marvels, all illustrated in a calming and muted colour palate, with intricate pencil work and astute attention to detail.

There’s no narrative to this book, it’s just a collection of facts, which many children will adore. But some pages do hold longer explanations, for example describing lunar and solar eclipses. What’s lovely about the text though, is that as well as being told in fairly simple explanations, there is a luscious sample of descriptive vocabulary, so that eclipses are ‘eerie’ and mountains are ‘majestic’. Temperatures can be ‘scorching’ while gases ‘spew’ through space. There are also touches of folklore here and there, weaving stories with facts.

But this is a book in which visual illustrations rule, obvious from the cover where the illustrator, not the author is credited. Illustrations are not to scale, nor all scientifically accurate – this book is about visual beauty leading the reader into the book, in the same way that the visual beauty of the world can give pause for further thought. And yet it also feels rather museumy, as if the Natural History Museum has come into your house, which is no bad thing. Illustrations are all captioned, sometimes with a label, sometimes a key, but no picture is superfluous to the whole – each illustration has a reason for its placement.

The book also gives an insight into cross-references, for example under the heading ‘Burrowing Animals’, it not only explains the deepest living animal ever found and at what point, but also, on the same page, extrapolates the deepest point ever visited by humans (there’s not much difference between the two measurements), as well as the deepest tree roots – so comparisons can be easily made and wondered at.

Stunning to look at, particularly the world’s largest butterflies, and the page entitled ‘Hottest, Coldest, Driest, Wettest Places’, which takes a round intersection of the Earth with different parts of the semi-circle annotated as to the four extremes. It’s a book that immerses the reader in a compendium of facts, as well as presenting the information in a way that feels almost historical, almost classical in approach.

It is part of the new golden era of children’s non-fiction, enticing children to make discoveries about scientific facts through beautiful presentation. It certainly sucks me in every time. A perfect holiday gift. Age 8+ years.

You can buy a copy here.

Little People in a Big World

Little people have existed in mythology and folklore dating back through history to the American Indians, whose petroglyphs show them horned, as well as in Ancient Greek mythology where pygmies (from the word pygme meaning the length of the forearm), were written about in The Illiad. In one tale the pygmies bind down the sleeping hero Heracles, a story that was later adapted by Swift for Gulliver’s Travels. Ever since Tom Thumb was published in 1621, purported to be the first fairy tale printed in English, there have been a litany of books about ‘the little people’ for children. The Grimm brothers collected a tale about Thumbling, ‘a child no longer than a thumb’, and as far away as Japan there is folklore about a child called ‘Issun-boshi’, translating to ‘Little One Inch’ – a tale about a miniature samurai with a sewing needle for a sword, a soup bowl for a boat, and chopsticks for oars. More familiar to current readers are Thumbelina by Hans Christian Andersen, The Borrowers by Mary Norton – which won the Carnegie medal in 1952, and Old Mrs Pepperpot by Alf Proysen. Little people are a great device for storytellers – they can have crazy adventures in the most mundane landscapes; they can be a mirror into our ‘big society’, or a criticism of it – AN Wilson considered The Borrowers to be an allegory of post-war Britain – weakened people living in a decaying country, using recycled materials.

pocket pirates

A truly delightful addition to the canon of children’s literature about miniature people, Pocket Pirates: The Great Cheese Robbery by Chris Mould shows the author to have an inventive mind and the ability to pack a huge story into a tiny world. From the delightful premise – a story of pocket pirates who live in a ship in a bottle in an old junk shop – to the execution, complete with hugely detailed illustrations on almost every page – this story jumps off the page with excitement and is hugely entertaining. In the first story of the series the ship’s miniature cat is kidnapped and held to ransom by mice. The pocket pirates must steal cheese from the shop’s kitchen fridge to take to the mice and rescue their cat. Chris Mould employs all the traditional tricks of the trade when writing about small people, from the fear of the dog (huge from their tiny perspective), to his adaptation of normal sized objects to work for the pocket pirates – washing up sponges as chairs, shoelaces as ropes, a mustard pot for a bath – as well as magically using the tale of the Trojan Horse and transporting it into his story, replacing the horse with cheese in order to fool the mice. However, Chris’ attention to detail is exceptional – it takes much empathy to write from the position of a tiny person, incorporating practicalities as well as fears and obstacles, and Chris Mould does it with aplomb. This is a fun story – it leaves the reader wanting the next in the series – and is bound to be a huge hit for all small children! Age 6+. You can purchase it here.

blue glass

An old tale, but just translated into English for the first time is The Secret of the Blue Glass by Tomiko Inui, about the little people who depend on the milk of human kindness, literally and metaphorically. The little people, a family of four – Fern and Balbo and their children Robin and Iris, live in a small library in a house in Tokyo. They are originally from England, but have been entrusted to the care of a young boy called Tatsuo in Japan, and then over the years to his family and children, and in particular, his small daughter Yuri. The little people rely on a small amount of milk being placed in the sparkling blue glass goblet for them every day by a human. When the Second World War comes to Japan, who are then at war with England, the humans and the little people become affected by external events, and nothing is the same again. Weaving complicated themes of patriotism, loyalty, cultural and moral identity, Tomiko Inui tells a bittersweet narrative of the impact of war on those behind the battlefields, and the children evacuated during the war effort. There are some wonderful descriptions of life in the Japanese countryside during the war, and much to be extrapolated about loyalty to one’s family, and standing up for what you believe in. There were some interesting similes from this tale written in 1959 about the little people being battered about in their basket in transit, much like migrants on a voyage across the ocean. This book is still relevant in so many ways – although tough to get into for the first chapter or so (which I put down to the translation warming up). The ending comes as rather a shock, but the book works as an eye-opener into another culture, and is an intriguingly different text from the run-of-the-mill contemporary children’s book. For those 8+yrs. Click here to buy a copy.

little girl
The Little Girl and the Tiny Doll by Edward and Aingelda Ardizzone was first published in the 1960’s but wonderfully is still in print and well worth a read. It tells the story of a sad little doll who is accidentally but rather callously dropped into the deep freeze compartment of a small shop. She makes the best of her surroundings, and is helped out by a small girl who shops with her mother and spies her one day between an ice cream tub and a mixed vegetables packet. The book is charming for many reasons. The world that the little doll creates in the freezer is magical – from the packets of food which act as buildings creating a pathway of streets between them, to playing bat and ball with an ice cream scoop and frozen peas (an image which has stayed with me for thirty odd years). The timidity of the little girl who finds the doll (she doesn’t pick her up as she’s been told not to touch things in shops, so merely drops packages of warm clothes into the freezer for her instead), is charming, and contrasts wittily with the sharpness of the shopkeeper, who is adamant that there are no dolls in her shop. The ending, for me, is most touching – the little doll uses her experiences in the deep freeze to tell stories to the other dolls she finally encounters. The story, short and sweet, teaches compassion, kindness and surviving against the odds, as well as, like Chris Mould, using wonderful empathy and inventiveness imagining life as a miniature in a deep freeze. The story was told by Aingelda Ardizzone to her children, and she was persuaded to write it down by her father-in-law, the illustrator Edward Ardizzone who then proceeded to illustrate it in his own magical style. Take particular notice of the illustrations of the haughty shopkeeper – the illustrations convey mood and emotion brilliantly. Age 4+. You can purchase it here.

chillly billy

Lastly, another cold miniature adventure is The Amazing Adventures of Chilly Billy, about the little man who lives in the fridge. Unlike the tiny doll, Chilly Billy’s place of living is no accident. He is the little man who lives inside the fridge and turns the light on when the door is opened, as well as polishing ice cubes, tidying the freezer, and repairing leaks in yogurt containers. The author writes directly to the reader, as if Chilly Billy lives in each and everyone’s fridge. For a small child, this is a magical narrative device and stretches the imagination. During the course of the book, Chilly Billy enters the fridge Olympics, suffers a ‘warm’ instead of a cold, and meets a new friend. Like other authors of little people tales, Peter Mayle has been inventive, imagining the special boots Chilly Billy would need to facilitate travel inside a fridge, as well as a special bike, the chores Billy must undertake, and the sports that can be done inside a fridge. As with the The Little Girl and the Tiny Doll, the images within this book resonate and instill characters that last beyond childhood. The version I have is colour illustrated by Arthur Robins – but I think the edition still in print is only black and white. Age 6+. You can purchase an ebook from Waterstones here or click the Amazon sidebar for the paperback version.

Chris Mould picked out some BIG moments for LITTLE people for the Guardian this week. You can read it here.

 

 

 

 

Ten Picture Books Published in 2014

I wasn’t writing my blog in 2014 (well not until the very end), so in order to catch up with the new brilliance emerging in picture books, here are some of my favourites from last year. The good news is that now it’s 2015 they should all be appearing in paperback sometime soon if not already. Note that many of these are not just for 4-6 years, many 8 year olds have enjoyed these equally, if not more, and teachers will love the rhyming language, clever plot devices and nuances of some of them. Others can be studied for style alone.

Oi Frog

Oi Frog by Kes Gray and Jim Field
Top billing for this book in which a disdainful cat explains to a frog where he ought to sit. This book is totally hilarious – worth reading over and over again, particularly if you can get the tone of voice right for the cat. It’s a rhyming book, inspiring children to shout out the punchlines before you get to them. The beauty of the book is the extreme simplicity of the concept –which animal sits on which object? The cartoon-like illustrations of the animals will have everyone in fits of laughter from the beginning endpapers of the frog to the lambs sitting on jams, the bees sitting on keys, the pumas sitting on ….. – no, I shan’t give it away. Buy the book!

you are not small

You Are (Not) Small by Anna Kang, illustrated by Christopher Weyant
This is a picture book where the pictures are everything (and no wonder as the illustrator is none other than the New Yorker illustrator Christopher Weyant). You Are (Not) Small attempts to explain relativity to children. Not a detailed theory of Einstein, but simply that everything is relative depending on your standpoint. Two hairy nondescript creatures argue over whether one is small or one is big until a bigger creature comes along, and some much smaller ones too – and suddenly big is not big but smaller, and small is not small but bigger. Confused? Without pictures it’s easy to be, but with pictures it’s not only clear but also hilarious. Two astute punchlines at the end make this a giggle for the children, as well as an interesting lesson.

little elliot

Little Elliot, Big City by Mike Curato
Another picture book on the topic of size, and with amazing illustrations – but this is quite different from You Are (Not) Small. Little Elliot is an overwhelmingly cute elephant, but small of size. He lives in a big city – Mike Curato has drawn almost Edward Hopper-like New York cityscapes – old fashioned with towering city blocks and a bustling subway packed with people in hats. Elliot can’t manage in the big city, even struggling to reach the counter to buy a prized cupcake in a pink cake box. Then he bumps into someone smaller than him (a mouse), and by doing this mouse a good deed, feels as if he is the tallest elephant in the world. The landscape changes abruptly to reflect his mood. This is a highly stylized depiction of size, with a huge emotional impact, especially when we discover that Elliot has not only gained confidence, but gained a friend.

on sudden hill

On Sudden Hill by Linda Sarah, illustrated by Benji Davies
Far, far from the city, this picture book also packs a punch emotionally, but the setting couldn’t be more different. On Sudden Hill is set in a deliberately unrecognisable everyman’s countryside, where rabbits and chickens frolic in the long grass. Birt and Etho are two boys who climb up Sudden Hill to play their imaginary games with each other. Then one day a third boy arrives, but his arrival has difficult consequences for Birt, who seems to have lost his “two-by-two rhythm”. He shows his frustration in anger, and then withdraws, and it takes a while before the boys can find their new “three-by-three rhythm.” The illustrations are almost whimsical in the way they hark to a childhood time of freedom, of swinging in trees, larking with discarded materials, and seemingly having all day to play under the sunshine. As in Little Elliot, the drawings are of an American landscape and the story delivers a fine message.

sam and dave

Sam and Dave Dig a Hole by Mac Barnett, illustrated by Jon Klassen
A definite two-by-two rhythm here as Sam and Dave are two small boys working towards a goal together. There’s a camaraderie between the two that one imagines is shared between author and illustrator, as the text and images play off each other to make the jokes. The images are in muted colours in the same way as the boys’ conversation is sparse and unembellished. As On Sudden Hill it relates to a childhood where all day could be spend digging a hole just for the sake of doing it. The reader is let in on certain jokes from the illustrator while the boys dig deeper and deeper. The whole text, images and pages from the very beginning to the very end need exploring for the reader to fully understand the whole context, the in-jokes and where Sam and Dave get to with their hole. Nothing to be given away here – you’ll have to buy it.

the something

The Something by Rebecca Cobb
Another hole, but this one is a complete mystery. Rebecca Cobb’s protagonist (described as a boy on the publisher’s website although to me the cleverness is that the child could be a boy or a girl) loses his ball down a hole in the garden, and spends the rest of the book imagining (with the help of friends and family) what could be down the hole. The book comes alive with the small deft touches at which Rebecca Cobb is so brilliant, the cowardice of the father figure, the imaginary mouse house beyond the hole, the diverse group of friends, the animals whose actions mimic those of the grandparents. This is a surprising and wonderful picture book, which, like On Sudden Hill, captures the power of imagination, and the beautiful landscape of the outside.

shh we have a plan

Shh! We Have a Plan by Chris Haughton
The power of colour screams from this blue book. This deserves a slow read – the text is almost a by-product, as all the action, characterisation and plot occurs through pictures alone. It’s a clever device, and if savoured, will result in your children clutching themselves in laughter. It did mine. Four hunters attempt to capture a bird, and fail every time. It’s a classic convention, yet executed in a stunning format. Each page is tones of blue – both hunters and landscape – the only extra colour being the hunted bird. Chris Haughton has a very distinctive style and he uses it to aplomb here.

teacher monster

My Teacher is a Monster (No I am Not) by Peter Brown
Again, an interesting use of colour for Peter Brown’s book, which as in Shh! We Have a Plan shows plot development through picture rather than text. The colours throughout are shades of brown and green – slowly turning to some turquoise and blue, and like Chris Haughton, Peter Brown’s style is truly distinctive. Initially Ms Kirby, the teacher, is portrayed as quite a monster. She roars in class, and stomps about with threatening behaviour. But then Bobby, from class, bumps into his teacher in the park at the weekend, and gradually they get to know each other. Bobby rescues Ms Kirby’s hat when it’s whipped away in the wind – and Ms Kirby suggests they fly paper aeroplanes – the same deed for which she had scolded her class earlier in the week. Then before his and our eyes, gradually her monster features are softened, and then disappear altogether through Peter Brown’s clever drawings, until in the end we see that she’s an ordinary lady. Peter Brown is showing us how we fear the unfamiliar, but if we overcome the otherness, then no fear remains.

ralfy rabbit

Wanted! Ralfy Rabbit, Book Burglar by Emily MacKenzie
Reminiscent of many other books that demonstrate a character’s intense love for books (see Bears Don’t Read by Emma Chichester Clark, and The Snatchabook by Helen Docherty), Ralfy Rabbit is another addition to the book lover’s library. However, Ralfy Rabbit stands apart for the massive attention to detail in the pictures and text. His lists of books will have adults chortling (The Rabbit with the Dandelion Tattoo), just as much as the children will be oohing after the cute rabbit pictures. Ralfy Rabbit loves books so much that he starts stealing them. Arthur is a little boy who discovers who is stealing all the books, but no one will believe him. His teacher’s attitude is astute and funny: “I want you to go away and have a long, hard think about what you are saying”, as is the bunny line-up when Ralfy Rabbit is eventually caught. The punchline – that a place exists from which you can borrow books – the library – is truly apt for our times. Let’s hope Ralfy Rabbit and public libraries have the longevity they deserve.

sloth slept

Sloth Slept On by Frann Preston-Gannon
Another picture book that explores the value of books is Sloth Slept On. When two children discover a sloth in their garden, they attempt to find out where it comes from – of course it doesn’t tell them – it’s always asleep. After coming up with a myriad of possibilities using their wild imaginations, they discover the answer by looking in a book and on a globe. Then the children need to work out how to get the sloth home – with interesting consequences, and a particularly funny punchline, which is alluded to throughout if you pay attention. The illustrations are adorable – from the sloth’s upturned mouth while it sleeps to the two playful and curious children. A winner for younger children.