Tag Archive for Klassen Jon

Children’s Book Fictional Personality of the Year

The newspapers have been packed with end of year lists since the beginning of December. In my final post of 2016, here is my personal end of year awards list.

Fictional Character Personality of the Year:
So many great characters this year, including bully Betty Glengarry in Wolf Hollow by Lauren Wolk, but the most memorable for me has to be Sam from Alone by DJ Brazier. It’s a brave author who sustains a book for children with only one character throughout, and forgoes the device of having animals talk so that there really isn’t any dialogue, other than the conversations Sam has with himself.

Stranded after a plane crash near the Amazon River, Sam has to summon all his strength and resilience to survive. This gives Brazier the ultimate excuse to show Sam’s development – he starts as a boy just like any other, but by the end Sam has had to grapple with loneliness, despair, injury and failure.

Brazier doesn’t hold back with gruesome detail, but there is also a surprising amount of humour, and lashings of emotion – Sam is a great kid and one I’d love to meet in real life.

Picture Book Character of the Year:

I could easily have plumped for Alison Hubble who doubles and doubles, but instead, my character of the year has to be Nibbles, the Book Monster by Emma Yarlett. This isn’t because I was bribed with a plush toy of Nibbles, but because the character is easy for children to draw, adorable in his mischievousness, and an original book-eating monster with a bursting personality, despite looking like a glorified m&m! The book has been paper-engineered to a high production finish, with lots of interactivity, references to fairy tales, and a wonderful hide and seek of Nibbles in a bookcase.

Cleverest Use of Colour: The Great Fire of London by Emma Adams, illustrated by James Weston Lewis. Finally given the treatment it deserves, this seminal point of British history is given an illustrative makeover in this sumptuous book that absolutely illustrates history to life. No child will find history ‘boring’ with this book glowing into their face.

Most Satisfaction Gained from an Activity Book: Pinball Science (Build Your Own) by Ian Graham, Nick Arnold and Owen Davey. I was never one for paper engineering – when I worked at Dorling Kindersley my absolute nightmare was being involved in the paper model project of the Millennium Dome. However, I made this Pinball Machine one Saturday afternoon, and it gave hours of pleasure to the kids, plus we learned some sciencey stuff.

Most Successful Publicity Campaign (aka bribery): King Flashypants by Andy Riley Not only did this book have me rolling about in stitches, but the kind team at Hodder sent me chocolate, activity sheets, an advent calendar and a bag to accompany my enjoyment (please note this was all sent after I had reviewed the book!). But buy it, because it also wins Funniest Book of the Year. I still read chapter 12 to perk me up during sad frustrating times.

Most Likely to Give Nightmares: The Nest by Kenneth Oppel, illustrated by Jon Klassen. I haven’t recovered from this nightmarish yet masterfully written young teen read. Merging dreams and reality, wasps and angels, this wasn’t a book even sent to me for review, but ended up being a book of the week for its lithe ability to sting the mind with thoughts and feelings.

Most Shocking Ending of the Year: Piers Torday rips up all the rules of children’s books with his ending in There May be a Castle. No spoilers here, but tissues at the ready. It’ll make adults think twice too.

Most prevalent animal this year: I’d like to say foxes or wolves, seeing as they have cropped up in so many children’s books from The Wolf Wilder, Wolf Hollow, The Wolves of Currumpaw to Maybe a Fox, The Fox and the Wild, and Finding the Fox, following in the tradition of The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, The Call of the Wild and Fantastic Mr Fox, but actually it’s dogs. There are dogs dotted all around the chidren’s book market at the moment, The Detective Dog, Dogs on Trains, Oi Dogs, Days with Dogs, just Dogs, Claude, Spot, Odd Dog Out, The Great Fire Dogs, Spy Dog, Knitbone Pepper Ghost Dog, Space Dog, not to mention secondary dog characters in stories. However, seeing as dogs, foxes and wolves all belong in the large taxonomic family called Canidae – we’ll leave it at that. Perhaps next year will be the turn of the cats. See you in 2017.

 

Children’s Books Gifts Round Up Part One

Are you looking for a gifts for the holiday season? Here is my round up of non-Christmassy books, which I’d choose to have in my stocking. Click on the titles to buy the book. Next week, look out for my list of children’s books with a Christmas theme.

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There have been so many good picture books this year, that I had a really hard time narrowing down which to feature. I didn’t want to repeat any I’ve featured so far, so here is my new selection for you. Starting with Odd Dog Out by Rob Biddulph. This author/illustrator can do no wrong – each of his books is equally delightful, although in a different way, and I think this latest is my favourite. A female dog who comes to recognise that one doesn’t have to follow the pack, but that it’s good to recognise and be pleased with your own individuality. Like Steve Antony, Biddulph stuffs his picture books with details so that young children can find rewards in the tiniest things, such as characters from previous books, and hidden motifs. Fun, imaginative, and downright adorable.

Another supremely talented illustrator is Jon Klassen. He concludes his hat trilogy with this spectacular book, We Found a Hat about a pair of tortoises in the same landscape as the previous books, but with a new dilemma. The hat isn’t missing, but there’s only one hat, and two tortoises. With the same devotion to visual literacy as his other books, the reader must pay as much attention to the pictures as to the text to glean the plot. A brilliant, humorous, empathetic book. I can’t get enough of these.

Another sequel, and another talent, Oi Dog by Kes and Claire Gray and illustrated by Jim Field continues the raucous fun of Oi Frog. One of the best picture books around for reading out loud (conversation between the animals) and extending play with rhymes, this is joyous fun. Not only are the rhymes brilliant and unpredictable at times, but the illustrations (see the bears eating porridge) rather wonderful. In Oi Frog the pumas sat on satsumas. Here the cheetahs sit on fajitas. I just love it. The end twist is punchy and hilarious.

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Matt Robertson is an illustrator who’s been creeping under the radar for a while, but should be more widely celebrated. His latest picture book Super Stan is one he’s written as well as illustrated, and it’s fabulous. More about siblings than it is about superpowers, this tracks our everyday jealousy of our siblings, but then ends up showing us the love that lies underneath the rivalry. Bright, colourful, funny, good pacing and a stand-out lesson, this is a perfect family read.

For a more discerning picture book reader, there is The Liszts by Kyo Maclear and Julia Sarda. A play on words, this isn’t about music but about the futility of making lists rather than taking action. Quirky in its artwork, offbeat in its characterisation, this is a book with texture, depth and detail, and a brilliant moral about spontaneity. The family make lists every day except Sundays, “which were listless.” Strange but rather wonderful.

The picks for newly independent and intermediate readers are no less fruitful.

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Witches aren’t just for Halloween, and this sterling start to a new series is one to treasure for fans of The Worst Witch, Bella Broomstick and suchlike. Grace-Ella Spells for Beginners by Sharon Marie Jones, illustrated by Adriana J Puglisi is set firmly in Wales (watch out for those tricky town names), but is a charming tale about a witch who doesn’t need a boarding school to learn her trade; she learns at home with the help of a black cat. Happiness shines out of this book – it is wonderful escapism with terrific characters and a truly delightful protagonist.

Old-fashioned tales abound in both Billy Button by Sally Nicholls, illustrated by Sheena Dempsey and A Jar of Pickles and a Pinch of Justice by Chitra Soundar, illustrated by Uma Krishnaswamy. The former is a Little Gem book, dyslexia friendly, and is an endearing tale for first readers about the old telegram system. Part love story, part Postman-Pat-esque, this is exquisite storytelling from an experienced author. Endless nostalgia for the old-school post office, and love for a bicycle, it definitely hit the spot with this reader and her little testers. The stories from India in A Jar of Pickles are denser, but each tells a little riddle of justice and rewards with a simple solution. Dealing with jealousy, crooks and a miscreant ruler, these tales are great for discussion, great for broadening horizons, and firming up that moral compass. The tone has a whiff of humour and the pace is zingy.

piglet-called-trufflestally-and-squill

Two more for this newly independent readers group are A Piglet Called Truffle by Helen Peters, illustrated by Ellie Snowdon, a delightfully gentle rural story about a girl who rescues a runt piglet and raises her on her own farm. Tones of Charlotte’s Web with pig similarities, and a subtle ‘Some Christmas Tree’ allusion, but the magic in this is the steady drip of animal care and farm information that Peters sprinkles along the narrative tale. Very cute, with cosy illustrations and a wonderful family Christmas ending.

And Tally and Squill In a Sticky Situation by Abie Longstaff, illustrated by James Brown for book-obsessed little ones. With its magical library, a poor orphaned girl and her companion animal, this contains just the right mix of fairy tale, magic and mystery adventure. With nuggets of non-fiction tucked into the text, and riddles to solve throughout, this is a brilliant read, with more in the series to come. It reminded me of Elspeth Hart with its sense of adventure, and yet also Horrid Henry in some of the typified characterisation. A great start to a new series.

robyn-silvershapeshifterblack-powder

New series for older readers include Robyn Silver: The Midnight Chimes by Paula Harrison about ten year old Robyn who can see creepy monsters where no one else can. Action-packed, loads of humour, monsters to rival Rowling’s Magical Beasts, and a chaotic background family – this series is  set to be a big success. A newly repackaged series is the Shapeshifter Series by Ali Sparkes, an exciting series from a writer who knows how to spin a scintillating plot. Dax Jones discovers an ability to morph into a fox, and is then whisked away by the government to be with a group of children with amazing supernatural powers (Children of Limitless Ability, COLA). There’s plenty of emotional depth to each character, brilliantly realistic portrayals of the animal instincts and behaviours yet mixed with typical teen reactions – ‘what’s for lunch?’ etc, so that the whole fantastical arrangement comes to life. There’s fast-paced action, great dialogue, and good tension. A cracking read – and a whole series already to devour on Boxing Day.

For a stand-alone piece of historical fiction, grab a copy of Black Powder by Ally Sherrick. England, 1605, and twelve-year old Tom must save his father from being hanged, and yet with Catholics despised and someone playing with gunpowder, things could end up being far more explosive than he could imagine. Bravery, quick-thinking, and massive attention to historical detail make this a sharp, thrilling read.

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And lastly three brilliant non-fiction gifts that didn’t quite make it to my doorstep early enough for National Non-Fiction November. A World of Information by James Brown and Richard Platt is an oversize book with a magically eclectic mix of material, each topic given a double page spread, and each explained in just the right level of detail. One child wanted it for the phases of the moon, another for the organs of the body. A third for the intricately captioned diagram of a bicycle. All the information you could ever need to survive (ropes) and answer questions on University Challenge (periodic table and layout of an orchestra). Beautifully presented too. Knowledge at its most appealing.

NY is for New York by Paul Thurlby will be even more coveted. This A-Z stylised picture book feels luxurious, and is the perfect book to leave out on your coffee table so that your guests know you have style. Each page shows a graphic of a city highlight, and gives a sentence of information – a tidbit that you could hurl at a stranger, such as that G for Grand Central Station has 67 train tracks. If you’ve ever dreamed of taking the kids travelling, this is a great place to start.

Lastly, a mash-up. The V&A museum have teamed with Penguin books to create the V&A Fashion Mash-Up book with styling tips and illustrations by Daisy de Villeneuve. Inspirational quotes from Alexander McQueen, Oscar Wilde, and others intersperse the cunningly presented pages. With photographs from the museum collections, and cut out models and fashions, the idea is to mix and match the illustrations and models with clothes from the V&A, creating an activity where the reader sees the fashion history but can make their own unique ensembles. With gold foil stickers, accessories, and shoes shoes shoes!, and backdrops in which to place your models, this was all the Christmas fun I could want in one book. I have purchased for more than one lucky recipient. Next week, Christmas books about Christmas!

The Nest by Kenneth Oppel, illustrated by Jon Klassen

the nest

(contains spoilers)

“Scritch, scratch, scritch”

This wasn’t planned as a book of the week. In fact, it wasn’t even in my ‘to be reviewed’ pile of books that teeters on the edge of my desk like some tower of Pisa, threatening to, and yet never quite pitching to the floor. I found it whilst rummaging through some books at a colleague’s on Wednesday night, and, the narrative and the voice enticed me from the outset, like a bee to nectar.

Except this is no friendly honeybee tale.

I don’t often come across ‘horror’ in children’s books. There is the Goosebumps series of course, and various other chilling tales that weave a web of menace in the mind, and Coraline, which I still think is one of the most haunting tales I’ve ever read. The Nest by Kenneth Oppel isn’t genre fiction, in that it isn’t just horror – it’s literary children’s fiction at its finest, and yet with a latent horror that rises closer to the surface the further you read.

Of course there’s horror in the very youngest children’s narratives – ‘Ring a Ring of Roses’ hasn’t a pretty fairy tale ending, and even ‘Row row row your boat’ holds a threat – ‘life is but a dream’ – what meaning does life really contain?

Kenneth Oppel plays with the distinction, or lack of, between dream and reality as a hook for his narrative, as well as cramming in a host of other themes and issues into his slight novella about a boy and some wasps:

Steve has always worried about stuff. Now he has new things to worry about – his newborn baby brother is sick, his parents are struggling to cope, and there is a wasps’ nest hanging in the eaves of their house. When Steve dreams about some angels who can ‘fix’ the baby, Steve thinks his worries may be assuaged. But the angels don’t stay in his dreams, and they aren’t what they first appear to be: they are wasps, and the ‘fixes’ they can provide, don’t turn out to be the ‘fixes’ that Steve had in mind. Before long Steve must do everything he can to protect himself and the newborn baby from the swarming wasps.

The Queen of the wasps, at first a soothing, fluttery angel with a mellifluous voice, soon turns out to be a coercive villain – the worst kind – one who seems nice but is far from it. Who offers what one wants, be it Turkish delight or to fix your newborn baby brother – and yet who is manipulating you in the worst possible way.

The ‘fix’ to the baby turns out to be ‘replacement’, which is a far cry from what Steve had envisaged. His guilt at being sucked into the wasps’ plan is ever present, almost tangible with its force, and his worries mutate from small insignificant worries into huge worries with wings.

Kenneth Oppel uses all the traits of classic horror to tell his tale – from unknown shadows at the bottom of the bed, to a figure no one else can see, to knives, the attic, a ringing telephone with a disembodied voice at the end of the line – and superbly juxtaposes Steve’s growing nightmare with his sunny little sister’s carefree existence.

The themes abound, from whether naming things gives a person power and control over a situation: If Steve could pinpoint exactly what was wrong with the baby, he might feel better:

“It made me feel better to have the words. As if knowing the names of things meant I had some power over them.”

to the exploration of villain and hero. By the end of the story not everyone is at the same end of the spectrum from where they were first cast – so that the roles aren’t obvious – no one is all hero or all villain, everyone has good and bad within – which leads onto Oppel’s main theme – that of perfection and normality. If the baby is made ‘perfect’ by the wasps, what does this mean? Do we want perfection? Are a person’s defects what makes them themselves, and is there such a thing as normality anyway:

“It was so perfect that it wouldn’t even understand what is was like not to be perfect. It could never know weakness or fear.”

The idea of a collective workforce, the worker wasps working their entire short lives for the Queen’s plan, sacrificing themselves for the greater good – is this a good thing?

And throughout, Oppel’s writing is masterful. His imagery light and fluttering:

“the threads of DNA that tell everything what to do. And with the baby I pictured them like strings of Christmas tree lights, only some bulbs were missing, and others were winking, and some had blinked out for good.”

Oppel has written his novel so that the reader feels so deeply burrowed within Steve’s mind that we can see all his thoughts, worries, anxieties laid bare before us, and they are particularly powerful when he worries about his parents’ concern for himself. He overhears snatched conversations, he ‘reads’ his parents’ expressions: his fearfulness is expertly portrayed.

And Oppel stings the text with insect references, from our houses being our own nests, to cocooning ourselves under the bedclothes, to cocooning thoughts in our head.

Even the cover of the book is clever – the jacket the outside of the nest, whereas the hard cover underneath shows the hexagons of the interior nest. Inside, Klassen’s images are equally menacing – showing half people with a lack of facial features, depicting the shadows instead of the real image, and wasps, so many wasps. And the endpapers are ingenious – showing the same image, and yet with slight but distinct differences so that the opening image looks threatening, the final image more homely.

Obviously many reviewers have pointed out the parallels with Skellig by David Almond – a sick new baby, angel references, a hidden space within the home, and yet this is powerful in a very different way. It makes you scared, and it makes you think.

At what point do we introduce such deep questions, such horror to our children? Because actually children do have anxieties from quite an early age – “will I fit in at school, am I wearing the right sneakers, why are my parents getting divorced?” There are so many questions, so many worries, that it’s only right that our fiction reflects some of these back to us. And this one does this with absolute perfection. It’s not a book that will cocoon you with warmth, but it’s a book that made it to the top of my pile of books – a book to dissect, and treasure, and nest with. You can purchase it here.

The book is marketed for age 10+. Please note that there are scenes of horror that sensitive children might find disturbing.

Summer Reading List

I’m not going to be blogging in August. It’s my month to take stock, recharge, and just READ. So, in case you’re wondering which books to pack/download for your children or take out the library for the summer reading challenge (see here), then here are a few suggestions.

i want my hat backoliver and patchwinnie at the seasidekatie mcginty

I recently re-discovered I Want My Hat Back by Jon Klassen. This is a modern classic and as close to picture book perfection as you can get. A bear is looking for his hat and asks a variety of creatures if they have seen it. It’s a simple concept expertly executed, with fabulous dry wit and wonderful facial expressions – the text and pictures complement each other flawlessly. It is fun to do different voices for different characters and good for all ages to discuss what happened to the rabbit and why! Oliver and Patch by Claire Freedman and Kate Hindley is a beautiful story about moving to a new place. Summer can be a transition time for lots of children, and it’s good to read a reassuring story about making new friends and settling into a new place. Phenomenal vocabulary, exquisite illustrations – it also shows the fun you can have in a city. For something more summery try Winnie the Witch at the Seaside by Valerie Thomas and Korky Paul. Much loved by children everywhere, this episode takes Winnie to the beach – although will Wilbur the cat stay dry? A good story, well told, with Korky’s distinctive style of illustrations. If you don’t want to rely on old favourites, this summer watch out for Katie McGinty Wants a Pet by debut author Jenna Harrington, illustrated by Finn Simpson, publishing 13th August. Katie wants a very different kind of pet (bet you can guess from the cover!). Although she may end up with slightly more than she bargained for – the writing style is fun and quirky – and captures a small child wonderfully – ‘She wanted it more than Millie Phillips wanted to be able to stand on her head.’

oliver and the seawigsclever pollylottie liptonthe gingerbread star ted rules the worldClaude Lights

My newly independent reading choices are a mixture of old and new too. Oliver and the Seawigs by Philip Reeve and Sarah McIntyre is a gem of a book, which takes the reader on a seafaring voyage unlike any other. The illustrations are sensational, look out particularly for Iris the mermaid. A classic, which has just been reissued and is well worth a read is Clever Polly and the Wolf by Catherine Storr. With 13 separate stories this is a good starter read. Each story is a play on ‘wolf fairy tales’, but magically don’t seem dated at all – and Clever Polly is remarkably likeable. If you’re doing any museum visiting this summer, or just looking to solve some riddles, a great read is the new Lottie Lipton series by Dan Metcalf, released in conjunction with the British Museum. These are well written little mysteries for growing readers but they have real riddles in them, and activities at the end. I’d love to read one whilst in the British Museum to see if I could follow the trail too. A must for young historians. For new or struggling readers I’m also heartily in favour of the Little Gem series from Barrington Stoke. There are numerous titles by fabulous authors in this list, but recent releases include The Gingerbread Star by Anne Fine, illustrated by Vicki Gausden and Ted Rules the World by Frank Cottrell Boyce, illustrated by Chris Riddell and Cate James. The Gingerbread Star retains the quality of Anne Fine’s longer work, and tells a glorious story of a worm who wishes she was a gloworm (so she can read in bed after lights out). She perseveres yet retains her sense of right and wrong throughout her adventure. Beautifully illustrated too – worms have never been so attractive. Ted Rules the World by high calibre writer Cottrell Boyce also retains the writer’s style – his sense of humour and mischievousness shine through in this hilarious story about a boy whose opinions on politics have a direct line to the prime minister. Far from marking him out as special though, Ted finds that the root cause is rather more uninspiring. It’s extremely funny. This agegroup also adore the Claude series by Alex T Smith, and on the 1st August, the new title is published, Claude: Lights! Camera! Action!. As zany as ever, Claude and Sir Bobblesock discover a film set and when the two lead actors are injured, they are asked to step in. The jokes hit on all levels – both children and adults. And that’s not all…this summer is momentous for the release of the very last Horrid Henry book by Francesca Simon: Horrid Henry’s Cannibal Curse. Although I’ve yet to see a copy of this and hate to review books I haven’t read I’m told it has an answer to the perpetual parental groan that Henry is too horrid…as Henry himself starts to read an interesting book about a girl called Evil Evie…

elspeth hart dara palmerrooftoppersmurder most unladylike
Eight to 13 year olds have a huge choice for their summer reads in this golden age of children’s literature. Firstly, I’d recommend Elspeth Hart and the School for Show-Offs by Sarah Forbes, illustrated by James Brown. The second in the series comes out in September, so wisely use the summer to read the first. It tells the tale of orphan Elspeth, working as a servant in the Pandora Pants School for Show-Offs, sweeping up mouse-droppings, and dodging the horrid students, until one day she realises why she’s there, and how she can escape. Comic fun and a school setting with a feisty heroine. Another show off is the eleven year old main character in Dara Palmer’s Major Drama by Emma Shevah. This is a fantastic story about a young adopted girl who desperately wants to be an actress. The story highlights how, through drama, she becomes more aware of herself and her relationship with her friends and family. Dealing with so many issues, such as adoption, diversity “I looked like a chocolate bunny in a room full of snowmen”, Dara’s voice is fresh, funny, and heartfelt. The massively annotated pages (doodles and patterns) entice the reader, as well as Dara’s imagined film script running parallel to her normal life, but Emma Shevah also deals cleverly with sensitive issues. Both an enjoyable read and an enlightening one (about adoption and different cultures). If your child hasn’t yet read Rooftoppers by Katherine Rundell, then buy it before her new book comes out in September. Rooftoppers tells the story of Sophie’s search for her mother across the roof tops in Paris. Katherine’s gift for storytelling knows no bounds – her writing is exemplary – stylish, fresh, original, and imaginative. It’s a perfect book and I implore you read it, instilling virtues such as love and courage and morality and seeking for the possibles in life. Its timelessness and third person narrative set it apart from other titles for this age group and it is a deserving winner of the Waterstones Children’s and Blue Peter Book awards. For series fans, I would recommend the Wells and Wong Mystery series by Robin Stevens. The first in the series, called Murder Most Unladylike, tells the story of Daisy and Hazel who set up a detective agency at their boarding school to look for missing ties etc, but then discover the body of the Science Mistress lying in the gym, and suddenly have a real mystery to solve. It is Agatha Christie for 9 year olds and over. Robin Stevens captures the innocence and yet vivaciousness of the two girls with all their insecurities and complexities. The book is set in the 1930’s but feels fairly timeless. It’s fun, imaginative, and brilliant for those who love mysteries and school stories. (so most children!). Three in the series have been published so far – an addictive set to devour on the beach, or staring at the rain…once you’ve read one, you’ll want to read them all.

boy in the towerthe executioners daughterbinny for shortphoenix

For slightly older readers, a haunting but utterly absorbing book for those wishing to ignore their family whilst on holiday is Boy in the Tower by Polly Ho-Yen. A modern day Triffids, Ade lives with his mum in a tower block, but one day the other buildings start to fall down. Before long the Bluchers have overtaken the landscape – plants that feed on metal and concrete, and give off deadly spores. Suddenly Ade and his mother are trapped. Ade has to learn to survive, figure out why his tower hasn’t collapsed and help his mother through the situation. It’s a tense, exhilarating read with memorable characters. Other stories for those slightly older are The Executioner’s Daughter by Jane Hardstaff– a historical tale, set in the Tower of London, and focussing on the ‘basket girl’, – the child who catches the beheaded heads in her basket. Never a dull moment in Tudor times – as the tale turns supernatural too. Salter, the loveable boy protagonist, is a sparkling creation. The sequel River Daughter, came out earlier this year. Binny for Short by Hilary McKay swings back to modernity, with a coming-of-age tale of friendship that deals with loss, relocation, family dynamics and special needs all in a highly readable, compelling summertime story. Binny is an all-rounded character, with frustration, humour, sympathy and a fantastic sense of childhood adventure. A great read from a prolific author who can clearly observe and articulate what people are really like. The sequel, Binny in Secret, came out in June. For those approaching teens, Phoenix by SF Said is my final pick. It’s something completely different – science fiction superbly written by Said, and ethereally illustrated by Dave McKean. It’s a powerfully ambitious tale of age-old war between Humans and Aliens. Lucky thinks he is an ordinary human boy, but once he discovers his extraordinary power realises that he must harness it to save the galaxy, even if it comes at huge personal cost. Bixa, the alien girl who gets mixed up in his story, is one of the most awe-inspiring characters in children’s fiction: fierce, magnetic and witty. I would definitely choose to dress up as Bixa on World Book Day if I were younger. This book is quite unlike any other in its age range – an epic with clear language, scintillating scenes and huge themes of power and myth, the universe and love, war and sacrifice. It will stay with you long after the summer fades.

Lastly, if you haven’t yet worked through my books of the week from this year, my most memorable reads were Stonebird by Mike Revell, The Dreamsnatcher by Abi Elphinstone, The Wild Beyond by Piers Torday and In Darkling Wood by Emma Carroll.

 

 

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.

 

 

The Dark All Around Us

Many small children have a fear of the dark. This can be difficult to address because the dark is an abstract idea; the fear is of the unknown, which makes it hard to conjure in a picture book. However, I have found five books that I think do the job really well in different ways. I’ve listed them in a kind of youngest to oldest order (lots of quibble room here though).

can't you sleep little bear

Can’t you Sleep Little Bear by Martin Waddell, illustrated by Barbara Firth

Although not immediately apparent that this about a fear of the dark, Can’t you Sleep Little Bear displays a perfect juxtaposition of darkness and light. The book kicks off with a light-drenched illustration as the bears play in the snow in bright sunlight, but then soon retreat home for bed to the Bear Cave as the sun goes down. Immediately the illustrations move to the ‘dark’ part of the cave where Little Bear is trying (and failing) to sleep. During the course of the book, Big Bear fetches larger and larger lanterns for Little Bear in the hope of trying to disperse the “dark all around us”. There’s no magic resolution to the story, as it becomes apparent that tiredness overcomes the fear in the end, but it does try to illustrate that there is no real dark, as even outside in the dark, the moon and stars overcome it, and Little Bear ends up “warm and safe in Big Bear’s arms”. There is nothing remotely frightening in this book, no hidden shadows or shapes in the ‘darkness’, just a comforting glow of the adult space. In this way, it can comfort the smallest of children. (There’s even a touch of humour added for the impatient grown up reader).

can't you sleep little bear2

 

There’s a Dragon Downstairs by Hilary McKay, illustrated by Amanda Harvey
This book won various awards about a decade ago and tackles the darkness in a solid way by illuminating the dark’s distortion of everyday things into monstrous entities; the darkness makes the familiar appear fearsome. Even the pencil lines of the illustrations indicate the ephemeral shadiness of the darkness. There is much sympathy for our protagonist Sophie from her parents, who valiantly search the house for the dragon, although in the end it is Sophie who must fight her own demons! Of course, the end is beautifully reassuring (spoiler alert!) – the dragon is revealed to be none other than the friendly domestic cat. A great way to explore a child’s fear without stating the obvious.

 there's a dragon downstairs

The Owl who was Afraid of the Dark by Jill Tomlinson, illustrated by Paul Howard
A beautiful picture book, which I read as a child as a chapter book – today it is published in both formats. The owl parents in this instance are ‘laissez-faire’ parents, sending the child owl ‘Plop’ to do some research on why it’s good to be a night owl! Plop interviews various humans (and a cat) about the dark to find out why they like it. Each character supplies Plop with a new adjective about the dark:
“The small boy said DARK IS EXCITING. The old lady said DARK IS KIND. The little girl said DARK IS NECESSARY. The man with the telescope said DARK IS WONDERFUL.”
Jill Tomlinson manages to convey Plop’s stubborn childlike qualities in his language;
“I still do not like it AT ALL”,
although he is persuaded in the end. The picture book, illustrated by Paul Howard, conveys the excitement of the fireworks and the magical quality of the night stars, as well providing the most exquisite owl drawings. A book that confronts the fear head on! I never tire of it.

owl who was afraid3owl who was afraid1

 

The Dark by Lemony Snicket, illustrated by Jon Klassen

A more recent picture book that confronts the fear head on is The Dark. The pictures as much as the text in this book simulate the fear of the little boy Laszlo, who is seen only in rays of light, while the rest of the page stays in the dark. The dark is even personified here, given a voice halfway through the book, which itself is pretty frightening:
“The voice of the dark was as creaky as the roof of the house, and as smooth and cold as the windows, and even though the dark was right next to Laszlo, the voice seemed very far away.”
I’ve suggested this is for slightly older readers because although immensely powerful, during most of the book the illustrations are fairly threatening. Laszlo is a brave hero and ventures further and further into the dark, until the dark is finally explained by Snicket, in fact – explained in the same way as the little girl in The Owl Who Was Afraid of the Dark – as being necessary! The darkness is also generous in The Dark, giving Laszlo a lightbulb to explain how without the dark:
“you would never know if you needed a lightbulb”.
A tricky concept, adeptly handled.

Dark Lemony Snicket

Little Mouse’s Big Book of Fears by Emily Gravett
This is not strictly about the dark, although there is a page about being alone or in the dark, but Emily Gravett’s book uses a different tool from the other books to conquer fears, which is perhaps worth mentioning here: art. Big Book of Fears sets out lots of things that may be frightening, from common childhood fears of dogs and getting lost, to fears that are slightly more obscure, such as fear of clocks, but each time the illustrator implores you to overcome your fears through use of art. Not such a bad idea, when for children, expressing emotions through pictures can be an illuminating task. The other undercurrent here for confronting and defeating fear is humour. The scared mouse taking us through the pages, delights parent and child alike as it recoils from ‘knives’ in a page that features newspaper cuttings on the ‘three blind mice and the farmer’s wife’. There are some excellent pull-outs here too – the page on heights features an exciting map of the Isle of Fright. A great book for starting a conversation about what’s scary and how fears can be confronted and conquered.

Little Mouse book of fears