Tag Archive for Donaldson Julia

Mystery Stories

We start solving mysteries from early on. Most toddlers play with some kind of shape sorting – working out that the square block fits through the square hole. Perhaps then moving onto jigsaw puzzles – at first the large ones with sticking up handles, and then finally the traditional puzzles, creating pictures of Disney heroines or maps of the world. All this goes towards child development in developing the gross and fine motor skills of course, but solving puzzles enables a child to hone memory, use logic and refine observation skills, and to sort the red herrings from the real clues.

Then eventually, putting pen to paper, children may tackle a spot the difference, a wordsearch, a crossword, a su doku.

What’s satisfying about these tasks is that by solving the problem, a child is restoring order at the end – bringing closure to the problem, much in the same way that authors end children’s books – with uplifting closure.

And the same applies to reading a detective or mystery story. Enid Blyton used to be the doyenne of such spiels – her Secret Seven and Famous Five solving mystery after mystery. Scooby Doo followed on TV, and we became a nation of child detective experts. Mysteries force the reader or viewer to hold information in their head, whilst following the story and working out critically where the story is headed – analysing characters for motive and honesty.

In contemporary children’s literature the depth and breadth of mystery stories is quite astounding; more and more of these land on my desk every day.

detective dog

Detective Dog by Julia Donaldson, illustrated by Sara Ogilvie
In picture books, the most recent is Julia Donaldson’s The Detective Dog. Not her strongest, but this time she’s paired with illustrator Sara Ogilvie, whose illustrations are bright, comic and refreshing. The Detective Dog’s mission is to see where all the books from the school have disappeared to. Despite some rather tenuous plotting, the book celebrates love of libraries (if only I knew of a real library that looked like the illustration in here – every booklover’s dream), but the story is sweet and the illustrations exquisite. There’s no doubt Donaldson is our queen of picture book rhyme:

“Thousands of books, from the floor to the ceiling.
The books gave the thief the most heavenly feeling.
He gazed in amazement. “Where am I?” he said,
And Peter replied, “In the library, Ted.”

You can buy it here.

dotty detective

Dotty Detective by Clara Vulliamy
For newly independent readers, Clara Vulliamy’s offering, Dotty Detective, fits the bill beautifully. Filled to the brim with illustrations, capital letters, italics, and written in a clearly paced diary format, this is the story of Dot, a little girl with more personality than doodles in the book. The text reads breathlessly – Dot talking to the diary – and soon she forms a detective agency with her school friend and faithful dog. There are some lovely ideas tucked in here, from the pink wafer code to homemade periscopes – lots of references to what’s important to this age group – sparkly red lucky shoes and yummy dinners, and enough dropped clues that the young reader can solve the mystery ahead of Dot. This is a perfect step up from picture books – the number of maps, illustrations, fake photographs, notes and even word searches mean that this is a story that lends itself as much to visual literacy as to textual. Seek the first in the series here.

nancy parker

Nancy Parker’s Diary of Detection by Julia Lee
Another diary format, and more mysteries in this historical book from Julia Lee. It is the 1920s and Nancy Parker has been employed as a housemaid for her first job. She has a penchant for reading six-penny thrillers, and wants to be a detective, so she seeks our mystery where she can. And luckily for her, there does seem to be some strange activity from her new employer – she has lavish parties, a murky past and a cook with a secret. Add to that a spate of local burglaries, and Nancy’s detective skills are put to use.

There’s a lovely rounded cast here, from the boy next door – Quentin Ives who wishes he was a dashing undercover spy called John Horsefield, but is really rather a nincompoop, and Ella, the brave and daring daughter of a local archaeologist. The three children are thrown together in solving the mystery, and although reluctant at first, realise that they are stronger together.

This book is full of wry comic fun, and great characters. Each child is so well painted, so thoroughly flawed and yet likeable that the reader will never tire of reading of their adventures (albeit there is no massive mystery to solve in the end). Partly written as Nancy’s diary in stunning handwritingish typeface, and partly in third person prose from the different children’s points of view, this was a really enjoyable read with great historical detail. Highly recommend. For 9+ years. Buy it here.

alice jones

Alice Jones by Sarah Rubin
Far more contemporary, Alice Jones is presented as a bit of a whizz kid. She excels at maths, and has a reputation for solving mysteries before the story begins. When a famous scientist goes missing after reputedly inventing an invisibility suit, Alice has to work out how to find him, at the same time as protecting her friends.

Alice is a great character, not merely a Nancy Drew who only solves mysteries, but someone with a life outside, including school, friends and family. She is clever but displays dry humour, and develops well during the novel, realising that classroom troublemaker Kevin Jordan may work as a good ally in problem solving. She also has to deal with her home life – a family that needs some problem-solving too.

The story is set in Philadelphia and there are definite Americanisms throughout, but the hardest task was solving the mystery – readers will need to be steered thoroughly by Alice – there is none of the blatant clue-dropping as in the titles above, where the reader learns more than the protagonist. However, it’s great to see a heroine deciphering clues with her intelligence rather than random flashes of intuition, and it makes for a gripping read. Age 10+ years. Buy it here.

There are so many more mystery stories for this 9+ age group, that it’s hard to cover them all, but here are some of my favourites:

mmu

The Wells and Wong Mysteries, starting with Murder Most Unladylike by Robin Stevens is one of my favourite series. Set in the 1930s, it mashes Agatha Christie mysteries with Enid Blyton boarding schools. In the first in the series, Daisy and Hazel set up a detective agency in their school to look for missing ties and suchlike, but then stumble across the body of the science mistress lying dead in the gym. Suddenly they have a real mystery to solve. A brilliant story, complete with boarding school rules and regulations, but also the twist of a murder to solve. Great gentle fun; if you haven’t discovered them yet, you’re in for a treat. Seek it here.

marsh road mysteries

The Marsh Road Mysteries, starting with Diamonds and Daggers by Elen Caldecott. This series, all set in the same street with the gang of children who live there is reminiscent of Emil and the Detectives simply because the setting is almost as much a part of the story as the mystery itself. Caldecott is a very skilful writer, and hops from head to head in the narrative, so that each child’s viewpoint is seen. The first book in the series tells the story of a missing diamond necklace – a famous actress comes to the local theatre, but when her necklace goes missing, the prime suspect is one of the local children’s dads. Piotr has to fight to find out who really did it to avoid being sent ‘home’ to Poland with his security guard Dad. Each character is well defined; and the readership will adore the familiar territory of friendships and loyalties as the series progresses. Compelling and really vibrant – a modern day Famous Five (but better!). Buy it here.

cover

Mystery and Mayhem anthology
This is one I have featured before here, when Helen Moss kindly guest-posted. This is a sumptuous book of mini-mysteries from many of the authors featured today, so the reader can have a sample of small mysteries (which are easy to solve by the reader) and find out which author’s style they like. My favourite, The Mystery of the Green Room by Clementine Beauvais.

Try also Helen Moss, The Adventure Island and Secrets of the Tombs series, Lauren St John, The Laura Marlin Mysteries, and Katherine Woodfine, The Mystery of the Clockwork Sparrow.

 

Mothers in Modern Children’s Books

In a great deal of children’s fiction, mothers are either dead, disappeared or distant. As a mother myself, that’s always a little frustrating – although I realise that the reason my children haven’t discovered a Magic Faraway Tree in the garden, escaped to another world through the wardrobe, or fallen down a rabbit hole is because I’m always there, beating on the door, interrupting every scene, making a nuisance of myself with my rules and fussiness.

The following children’s books all feature mothers very kindly – in one even pointing to the fact that they are superheroes – so for mother’s day, I’m celebrating the mothers who feature, rather than fade into the background.

the paper dolls

The Paper Dolls by Julia Donaldson, illustrated by Rebecca Cobb
One of the slightly lesser known Julia Donaldson stories, this is a nostalgic ride through childhood, describing the craft activity of a small girl, and her memories of it as she grows. The mother, first labelled as ‘nice’ in the text, is portrayed with more empathy in the pictures – the reader sees her on her knees beside her daughter with a cup of tea in hand. She looks on fondly at her daughter colouring in the paper dolls. She has clearly helped to make them.

The mother disappears as the girl takes her dolls away to play, but returns to join in the make-believe at the breakfast table – donning a crocodile puppet. Unfortunately she can’t rescue her daughter’s paper dolls when a nasty boy comes to snip them to pieces. The little girl then grows into a mum herself:

“And the girl grew…into a mother”, my favourite illustrations portraying the child growing from holding a book to holding a baby – and then

“who helped her own little girl make some paper dolls”, this time at the table, but mimicking the former picture, with similar props.

The text doesn’t rhyme, as in many favourite Donaldson titles, but there is a superb sing-song rhythm to the story, which a reader can’t help but pronounce as its read aloud.

Of course I’ve picked it for the depiction of a mother who plays with her child, but actually the story is about loss – the fluidity of time, the memories of things now long gone, including people, and the inherited culture that continues from one generation to the next. Because after all, as mothers, we’re teaching children about our heritage, and giving them tools to manage and enjoy their future. Purchase it here.

polly and puffin

Polly and the Puffin: The Stormy Day by Jenny Colgan, illustrated by Thomas Docherty
Just published, this is a book that captures the relationship between mother and child in a few simple words, and with just a few pages evokes real emotion in the reader.

Polly and the Puffin: The Stormy Day is the second in the series. Polly is waiting for her father to come home in his boat, but the waiting is difficult, and even harder when it’s raining outside and a storm makes her feel anxious. With beautiful two-colour illustrations throughout, shades of orange and grey creating the perfect mix between a child’s outlook and the approach of a grey storm.

Of course, her puffin, Neil, features heavily in this series of books about the friendship between the girl and the rescued puffin – and the illustrations of Neil are also accentuated by the chosen colour palette (black and white and an orange beak). Polly is distressed when he flies off into the storm and she has to wait for him to return as well as her father.

There are some beautiful touches of interplay between mother and daughter. Polly wakes up early, the inference is that it is too early, and:

“Mummy was trying to do Busy Stuff.”

She asks Polly for five minutes – and the author turns to talk to the reader:

“Can you just give me five minutes?” said Mummy. (Does your mummy ever say that?)”

There are some real moments of emotional intelligence all the way through the book, from the illustrations of Mummy at the computer with Polly hanging round her neck, to Mummy’s comforting of Polly during the storm:
“I would come and find you. That’s what mummies do. Shelter you from storms.”

Mummy also shows Polly that she is not alone in her waiting – with a sympathetic and understanding explanation of all the other people who are waiting in the café. There is a beautifully happy uplifting ending of course – a hug of a story. At the end there is information on lighthouses, recipes and activities. Perfect for newly independent readers, and mums who want their heartstrings twanged. You can buy it here.

superhero street

Superhero Street by Phil Earle, illustrated by Sara Ogilvie
For my eagle-eyed readers, you’ll see that this is the second in Phil’s series of Storey Street books, and the first, Demolition Dad, I featured last Father’s Day, so it’s rather fitting that this second slots into my Mother’s Day post.

Mouse lives on Storey Street with his twin and triplet brothers. He is obsessed with superheroes, and knows he could be one himself, as heroes tend to come from the ordinary – just look at Clark Kent. So far though, he hasn’t been successful.

When he and his mother accidentally foil a bank robbery, his dreams of being a superhero come true. When other ‘superheroes’ arrive at his house, he and they band together to stop a dastardly villain returning to claim her missing diamond.

The story is slightly more insular than Demolition Dad – it is almost entirely focussed on Mouse’s family, with friends on the street as periphery characters only, but this is mainly because Mouse’s own family is a bit of a mess, and rather sprawling. Mouse feels overlooked at home, with five smaller brothers to look after, his parents are exhausted. Then when his Dad walks out, Mouse’s despair sinks to new levels. If children are unhappy at home, it’s hard to shift the focus away.

Because this is for younger readers than Phil Earle’s YA territory, he very cleverly weaves the silliness of the story, complete with madcap and lunatic characters such as superhero Dandruff Dan, into the mix, so that bodily function jokes mask the seriousness of a father leaving home and the burden left behind on the mother.

The underlying message is that anyone can be a superhero if they act in the correct way – Mouse’s mother is certainly a superhero in my eyes, and in illlustrator Sara Ogilvie’s eyes: her portrayal of Mum in the kitchen supervising her six boys. Mouse’s mother is also the school lollipop lady – another community superhero.

Phil’s penchant for authorial references and asides to the reader always makes me giggle, and emphasise that he’s telling a story:

“People throw parties for lots of different reasons. Birthdays, weddings, chickenpox…don’t laugh, it’s true, go and ask your mum. Well, go on! OK, are you back? Comfy? Good…”

So combined with the silliness of the plot, the hilarious illustrations, and the comedic text, this makes for a riotous book despite the underlying seriousness.

A superhero writer – showing the goodness of mothers. For readers aged 7+ years. You can buy it here.

sam and sam

The Secrets of Sam and Sam by Susie Day

What’s better than one mum? Two mums! As Susie Day puts it in The Secrets of Sam and Sam:
“One mum was good. Two mums was best.”

This novel is a spin-off title from Susie Day’s much loved series about Pea (including Pea’s Book of Best Friends). Secondary characters in Pea’s books, the twins Sam and Sammie move centre stage with their own story here, in a loveable tale about being twins, having a loving family, school trips, conquering fears, making friends and builders!

Told in a series of vignettes about Sam’s secrets, and then also third person narrative about both twins, as well as letters, annotations on the book Mum K (child psychologist) is writing, and various other documents and text messages, this is a hilarious look about finding out who you are, what you can achieve, and how to make friends.

Sam is scared of heights and wants to avoid the school trip, which sounds dangerous and risky. Sammie is delighted about the school trip, but rather worried that her best friend has a new best friend. And she needs to prove to everyone that she’s definitely the Best Twin. Meanwhile Sam and Sammie’s two mums have secrets of their own.

This is a fun story that children will whizz through, sympathising at times with both twins, and seeing the delightful irony and wit that shines through Susie Day’s writing.

The author is brilliant at conveying the messiness, stresses, and love of the family unit in all its different guises and ways – even with the peripheral characters in this novel, and that’s what makes the read heart-warming, sincere, and sharp too. She imbues her characters with a warmth and generosity – even when they’re making mistakes (the adults too), so that the reader both empathises with them, and feels a familiarity with the book too. Her settings are incredibly visual – the street is particularly well-described, so that the reader is completely immersed.

Dotted throughout with doodly illustrations by Aaron Blecha, the book feels both meaty in content and yet satisfyingly easy to fly through – highly recommended for children aged 8+ years. And it features a family with two mothers. Hard to beat on Mother’s Day. You can buy it here.

National Share a Story Month: Dragons

May is National Share-a-Story Month and the 2015 theme is dragons. To celebrate, I’m using the Tuesday Top Ten Bloggers’ Meme created by The Broke and the Bookish writers to list my top ten dragon picture books. In no particular order:

Doughnuts for a Dragon

Doughnuts for a Dragon by Adam and Charlotte Guillain, illustrated by Lee Wildish
I love that dragon books tend to have protagonists called George, seeing as they are following the old legends of George and the Dragon. This George decides to go in search of a dragon. To do this he builds himself a time machine and packs lots of snacks, including doughnuts. On his way to meet the dragon he bumps into all sorts of strange and horrid creatures, such as a witch, and an ogre, but pacifies them all with tasty treats. When he finally meets the dragon, he discovers that it’s not as ferocious as he thought, and together with a lonely princess they feast on doughnuts. The text rhymes well, and the illustrations are fantastically fun – right from the opening pages in George’s bedroom with its puns on modern culture, and the characters depicted cheerfully and colourfully. The language is great, from the very incidental time machine, to the whooshing, click clacking and squeaking. There are others in the series, including Pizza for Pirates, Spaghetti with the Yeti, and my personal favourite, Marshmallows for Martians. You can purchase it here or see the Amazon sidebar.

george and the dragon

George and the Dragon by Chris Wormell
Admitting a slight bias here, as Chris Wormell kindly opened my school library and did some amazing illustrations for our walls, but I loved this book before I met him. It’s a subversive take on the typical legend, and shows great humour. George here is a mouse, not a knight, although this is only revealed halfway through the story. Before this, we have magnificent illustrations and fierce text on how powerful and mighty the dragon is, although he has a secret. He is scared of mice. When our unknowing hero George moves into the cave next door to the dragon, he inadvertently rescues the princess, and is rewarded with a fine meal and a new home. The illustrations are dramatic and vivid, and drawn to incredible detail. Chris Wormell is the illustrator of the cover for the 2014 Samuel Johnson winner H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald– his illustrations are truly a cut above. You can purchase it here or see the Amazon sidebar.

the trouble with dragons
The Trouble With Dragons by Debi Gliori

A much-loved and re-read text, this is a warning about our environment and how we treat the world, told simply, elegantly and cleverly in a dragon tale. The dragons use up all the resources on earth by building houses, taking up space, eating all the food, leaving a mess, and blowing hot air which melts the snow and turns the ice to water. The rest of the animals ask the dragons to think about what they are doing before it is only dragons left on the planet, to reduce their hot air, to reuse and recycle. The end stanza has a telling tone:
“So – if you know a Dragon (and most of us do)
ask it if it thinks that this story is true.
For if we can’t see that our stories are linked
then sadly, like Dragons, we’ll soon be extinct.”
It’s not subtle, and it’s not a picture book for pre-schoolers, but occasionally it’s good to hear to get a message across directly. You can purchase it here or see the Amazon sidebar.

zog

Zog by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler
I can’t not feature Zog in my list – this quintessential book all about dragons at a dragon school and the various lessons they undertake each year from learning to fly to blowing fire and capturing princesses, but it did feature heavily in my Brave Girls feature a week ago, so click the link to read more about it.

where did all the dragons go

Where Did All the Dragons Go? By Fay Robinson, illustrated by Victor Lee
This is like reading a lyrical poem with accompanying dreamy illustrations. It’s for older children and it’s not lighthearted and funny like Zog, but is a beautiful picture book, and one worth cherishing. When reading aloud, it’s wonderful to watch the faces of children as they hear the rhymes, savour the language and look at the impressive illustrations. Older children will appreciate the dark artwork of dragons swooping through the air, lit by the illuminated balls of treasure in their claws, and other artworks with dragons, wings outspread, lit from beneath as if flying above the sun. The vocabulary is stretching:
“Gentle dragons, young and old,
hoarding gemstones, guarding gold,
gathering in dragon crowds,
breathing fire, making clouds.”
Sadly, it appears to be out of print. I suggest borrowing from a library or seeking second hand through online retailers.

that pesky dragon

That Pesky Dragon by Julie Sykes, illustrated by Melanie Williamson
Lightening the tone once more, this is another picture book for younger readers. I chose this almost entirely for the page that shows the dragon with a tear in his eye. A female protagonist here, Izzy lives on a farm with lots of farm animals, and a dragon! Although over the next hill, its roars can be heard by everyone on the farm, and the adults deem it too dangerous to go near it. Not only that, but they blame the pesky dragon for the eggs being hard, the milk turning to yogurt and for burning all the wheat in the field. Izzy decides to be brave and go to see the dragon, and discovers that it is trapped:
“I’ve been shouting for help for days,” the dragon cried.
The illustrations are so tender and heart-warming, so bright and colourful, that no child can be scared or upset reading this book. It teaches that you don’t have to be afraid of something that is ‘other’, as the unfamiliar can always look scary until you know what it is. It also implies that it can be good to be brave. It’s a happy ending. Sadly not available everywhere, but you can buy it from online marketplaces or borrow from your local library.

there's a dragon downstairs

There’s a Dragon Downstairs by Hilary McKay, illustrated by Amanda Harvey
This too, I’ve written about before, as it exemplifies our fear of the dark and also, like That Pesky Dragon, our fears about what’s unknown or unfamiliar. Click here to read my review of it, in terms of books about the dark. I’ll also admit that it’s slightly cheating, because as you’ll discover – there’s really no dragon in this book at all!

paper bag princess
The Paper Bag Princess by Robert Munsch, illustrated by Michael Martchenko

A feminist tale about a smart princess who outwits a dragon and then decides that she won’t marry her prince because he wants an archetypal fairy tale princess, and she is certainly not one of those. In a fairy tale twist, an extremely powerful and dangerous dragon comes along and destroys the princess’s castle and captures the prince. It is left up to the princess to rescue him, but the dragon has burnt all her possessions so the only thing she can wear is a paper bag. She follows the dragon to his lair, outwits him and sets the prince free. The last page sees her skipping off into the sunset on her own, but happy. There are some faults with this text, but kudos must be given for a feminist tale published as long ago as 1980 and still in print. You can purchase it here or see the Amazon sidebar.

mirrorbelle and dragon pox

Princess Mirror-Belle and the Dragon Pox by Julia Donaldson and Lydia Monks
Julia Donaldson’s mirror princess started life in chapter books, but has recently made the transition to picture books, which is fabulous because Lydia Monks’ drawings are exquisite, and the added sparkle on each page is quite irresistible. With Julia Donaldson you know you’re going to read quality text, even if it’s slightly longer here than in her more well-known picture books, and also isn’t in verse, but in simple prose. The story is about Ellen who has chicken pox, and her mirror princess, Princess Mirror-Belle who climbs out of her bathroom mirror, announces she has dragon pox and that she knows the cure. Before long the princess has the bathroom in completely disarray, but of course disappears back into the mirror before Ellen’s Mum discovers her. It’s a simple story, beautifully told and illustrated and will charm any child affected (or not) by the pox. And yes, I’ve cheated here – there’s no dragon. Just dragon pox. You can purchase it here or see the Amazon sidebar

george dragon fire station

George’s Dragon at the Fire Station by Claire Freedman and Russell Julian
My last dragon story is for younger readers (probably the youngest for whom I cater), but again is written by such a picture book talent, that it would be sad to miss her out. This series starts with George’s Dragon about a boy who has to convince his parents that a dragon is a viable pet, and now includes George’s Dragon Goes to School, and this latest addition published last year. An open day at a fire station should be perfect for a dragon, after all there’s a whole crew to extinguish any unwanted dragon fire, but it turns out George’s dragon can be quite a liability. He is clumsy and large, and gets in the way, until a real call to the fire station warrants a helping hand from a creature who can fly, and in steps George’s dragon. This is narrative prose, but with nice touches of typeface, such as larger letters, and nee naars and dings all over the place. Added to that, Russell Julian’s purple dragon has the friendliest features of all. You can purchase it here or see the Amazon sidebar

Just for fun, learn how to draw a dragon with children’s illustrator Emily Gravett here or how to make a dragon (out of paper!) with Lydia Monks here.

 

 

 

Brave Girls

rosie revere engineerzog  pearl power

I know many successful women. They work hard, are intelligent, interesting and skilled people. Yet, often a theme that resurfaces time and again is women’s lack of confidence. It often manifests itself in a barrier to then pushing forward and getting to where they want to be, or a crisis of confidence in appearance. Much has been written about this, one of my favourite articles being this one from May 2014.

One way to bust through this perpetual wobble is to instil a sense of confidence in our littlest readers from early on. Three books to help you do this, and which are in NO WAY just for girls, are:

rosie revere engineer

Rose Revere Engineer by Andrea Beaty, illustrated by David Roberts
A picture book, but not for pre-schoolers. It’s one of those titles I point towards as lasting throughout primary school and even beyond as a learning tool, as well as an enjoyable read. I even use it as a pep talk for myself on low days. Rosie Revere dreams of being an engineer. But what I love most about this book is that it doesn’t contrast Rosie with ‘boys’ in order to make the point that girls can be engineers. In fact, for me, gender isn’t really the issue here at all – Rosie could be gender neutral – it’s about building confidence and persevering with something –for me it just suits my purpose in featuring a girl. Rosie is shy, but secretly likes to build and make models out of junk materials. The genius also lies in the fact that it mentions when she was smaller she didn’t have a lack of confidence but almost reveled in her fine inventions. As many toddlers grow into little girls, they do also start to lose that bravado. In the story, she makes her uncle, the zookeeper, a snake-deterrent hat, but sadly, he laughs at it, and by default, her.

“And when it was finished, young Rosie was proud,
But Fred slapped his knee and he chuckled out loud.
He laughed till he wheezed and his eyes filled with tears,
all to the horror of Rosie Revere,”

At this point, she decides to keep her dreams simply as dreams. Then her great, great Aunt Rose visits and inspires her to build a flying contraption. It also fails, and her aunt Rose has the same reaction as her uncle. This comes as a surprise to the reader, who is obviously expecting better from her aunt. Rosie thinks that she will never be an engineer, but her great, great Aunt explains to her:

“Your brilliant first flop was a raging success!
Come on, let’s get busy and on to the next!….
….Life might have its failures, but this was not it.
The only true failure can come if you quit.”

Her great great Aunt teaches her perseverance and pursuing of dreams, and Rosie stands proud next to her inventions.

There are a couple of other things to point out here. In the last page, Rosie’s whole class are shown with their crazy inventions, boys and girls of all races, which is refreshing to see. On the final back page, barely noticeable, but there is a historical note, referencing the women who provided the workforce during the war effort – especially in the US represented by Rosie the Riveter, the fictional character whose slogan was ‘We can do it!’. I love that the author has referenced the time in which women really started to come to the forefront of the workforce – being indispensable and doing jobs that had previously been deemed suitable only for men.

The vocabulary throughout is enriching and bold – from words such as perplexed to dismayed, and swooping and lingered. The illustrations are detailed and wondrous – there is lots to look at and inspect on each page – from the different patterns worn by the children, to the mass of material Rosie uses for her inspiration in building. This is a page to linger on for quite some time. And the text rhymes! This is a gem of a book. I cannot recommend it highly enough. See the Amazon side bar or purchase from Waterstones here.

zog

Zog by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler
I don’t always like to recommend books by this pairing – not because I don’t love their books – I do, and could write a whole blog about them, but I often feel everyone already knows them, and some bookshops devote so much space to them, it can be hard to find all the other picture book gems hidden away at the back.

Zog tells the story of a school of dragons learning their different skills year on year, from flying to breathing fire to rescuing princesses. Zog is the biggest dragon, and the keenest to learn. However, although keen, he often fails and hurts himself, and happens to be ‘rescued’ and tended to by a small girl called Pearl. The subversive ending is that Pearl is a princess who wishes to be a doctor, and doesn’t want to be saved by a prince, the prince wants to train to be a doctor too, and Zog chooses to be part of the ‘flying doctors’ crew, which Madame Dragon, the school teacher, regards as an excellent career choice.

Zog stands out for me as a particularly interesting picture book. I love to use it when talking about girls and confidence for two reasons. Although Zog is the title of the story, there are two characters within who represent ‘girl power’ for me, and whom the children I read it with love more than Zog himself. Madame Dragon, who runs the dragon school, and Princess Pearl, who not only rescues Zog, and shrugs off her princess fripperies to be a doctor, but also in the end, hires the dragon as her transport, and trains the prince to be her junior doctor.

Of course, as with all Julia and Axel’s books – the rhyming is pitch perfect, the illustrations are familiar, funny, friendly and detailed, and children love them. You can buy from Waterstones here.

pearl power

Pearl Power by Mel Elliott
Another Pearl, but this one written with a clear agenda in mind. For this reason, I think it fails a little where the others succeed. It is not quite as polished – the rhymes don’t always scan perfectly. However, it is a useful and rather fun addition to this canon, particularly if like me, the advert Drive Like a Girl, tends to make you hit the steering wheel in frustration – no matter how they wish to spin it.

Pearl moves to a new school, in which there’s a particularly irritating little boy called Sebastian who keeps trying to insult Pearl by saying she does things “like a girl”. Pearl’s response is to take the intended insult as a compliment and prove that she is very skilful indeed. By the end she is hugging him ‘like a girl’. It’s a simple story, with simple illustrations, yet wins me over with the expressive Pearl and the stylised tonal colours. I particularly liked:

“The new school was huge and Pearl was afraid,
but she had to be tough, it was time to be brave.
Most of the kids were bigger than Pearl,
but she knew that she was a clever strong girl.”

This is one girl whose sense of self-confidence has already been instilled by her recently promoted Mum (the reason for Pearl’s moving and attending her new school).
With thanks to @pbooksblogger for the suggestion. You can purchase Pearl Power here or through the Amazon sidebar.

I’d also like to say, when choosing picture books look carefully at what’s being represented. You will want to aim for a subtle message for your children – they aren’t stupid! For instance, How to Hide a Lion by Helen Stephens, a book I’ve mentioned before, luckily isn’t promoted in any way as being ‘girl power’, and yet it features a brave little girl who embraces difference when no one else will. I wouldn’t promote buying a picture book specifically with a gender agenda in mind, but as well as looking at whether you like the pictures, the text, whether the rhymes works and the story is good – have a look to see if your protagonist is a boy or a girl, and whether the picture books you have portray a different mix of genders, races and religions. See if you can spot those brave girls lurking out there somewhere…

 

 

How Can I Help My Dyslexic Child To Love Reading?

Dyslexia Action quotes that on average one in three children in every classroom is dyslexic and therefore struggle in some way with literacy.[i] As a reading for pleasure consultant, it’s vital to help parents find those texts that will appeal to a dyslexic child, and keep them reading because they want to. In particular, it’s important not to make that child feel as if they can read only ‘easy’ books that their peers read long ago, and for which they might be ridiculed for reading.

Being dyslexic only means that the processing channels can get mixed up – it doesn’t mean the child is in any way less intelligent, and so the books still need to be content appropriate. It’s also vital that the child doesn’t find the processing too difficult, so that their confidence (which can be the first thing to go) is nurtured, and it’s vital to help them discover that reading can be a pleasure not a struggle.

Luckily, in today’s publishing industry, the publisher Barrington Stoke is doing some excellent work producing books that are dyslexia-friendly, and seek to be like any other chapter books in their outward appearance.

What does dyslexia-friendly mean? In the main, it means that books have the following features:
paper that’s off-white to reduce glare, well-spaced text, thick paper so that the words from the next or previous page do not show through, wide margins, straightforward syntax, (which means that there aren’t too many clauses in one sentence), an unjustified right-hand margin, a well-structured story, and signposts that clearly show the story’s natural pauses – pictures, headings etc.

I’m most often approached by parents of children aged about seven who are learning about dyslexia for the first time and are desperate to find appropriate books to encourage them to read and learn to love reading. Here are some titles by phenomenal children’s writers to help:
Haunting of Uncle Ronyoung werewolfsnake who came to stayreal true friendsmeet the weirds
The Haunting of Uncle Ron by Anne Fine
A funny book about a guest who doesn’t want to leave! Part of the 4u2read series from Barrington Stoke, which also includes excellent stories by the likes of Annie Dalton, Michael Morpurgo, Jeremy Strong, Malorie Blackman, and Terry Deary, all aimed at an 8-12 years interest age.

Young Werewolf by Cornelia Funke
One of my favourite authors ever since reading Inkheart, Cornelia has the ability to create magic through simple text. When Matt gets bitten on the way home from the cinema, he realises he’s been infected by a werewolf. Can he undo the curse before the full moon? See also The Moonshine Dragon by Cornelia Funke for younger readers.

The Snake Who Came to Stay by Julia Donaldson
Another excellent children’s author best known for her picture books (many are surprised that Julia Donaldson has so many titles for older readers, but she does!), this is a simple tale of a home for pets and the trouble that ensues when Doris the snake comes to stay. Part of the Little Gems series, this is aimed at the 5-8 years age group, which is quite a wide range in my opinion, but excellent for confidence building for first readers.

Real True Friends by Jean Ure
When Hannah moves to a new school she needs to discover who are her real friends. A good story about fitting in and friendships. Jean Ure is a well-established writer and many of her books feature girls aged between 10-14 years, so a young reader can progress through her books if she likes the style. I personally remember Jean Ure for her now out-of-print titles such as One Green Leaf and A Twist in Time, and Hi there, Supermouse! which I adored!

Meet the Weirds by Kaye Umansky
A fabulously funny story about unconventional neighbours. Mrs Weird is a stuntwoman and Mr Weird a mad scientist and they have some unconventional habits, so moving in next door to the Primms is bound to spell trouble.

There are many more titles on the Barrington Stoke website, to which I highly recommend a visit.

However, I would also point to stories such as the Horrid Henry series by Francesca Simon as a good read for dyslexic readers because they contain brilliant illustrations by Tony Ross, and are divided into short manageable chapters. Likewise Clarice Bean Don’t Look Now by Lauren Child and the Ottoline books by Chris Riddell are all stories broken up into short chunks with fantastic illustrations to accompany the text. Mr Gum by Andy Stanton has excellent spacing too, and try the Agatha Parrot books by Kjartan Poskitt, which, like the Mr Gum series, are also illustrated by the amazing David Tazzyman.

I would recommend the Edge series of graphic novels from the publisher Franklin Watts, which are also published on dyslexic-friendly paper. They are an excellent publisher of non-fiction titles, and their Slipstream series of reading resources is aimed at struggling readers.

For older readers (young teen) the Wired Up series by the publisher A&C Black are an invaluable source of gripping reads at manageable lengths and levels.

Of course it’s hugely helpful for a child to be able to identify with the characters they are reading about. So, here below are some books in which the protagonist has dyslexia:

percy jacksonhank zipzerreading the gamemaggot moon
Percy Jackson
Percy Jackson and The Lightning Thief is the first of a hugely popular series of adventures by Rick Riordan. This series focuses on adventures with the Greek gods, and the books are tremendously exciting and fast-paced. Aged 9 and up.(and there’s a film).
Hank Zipzer
The Hank Zipzer series of books by Henry Winkler (yes the Fonz to you) follows the haphazard adventures of a ten year old boy. Very American but also very funny.
Reading the Game by Tom Palmer
A lovely story about a football mad boy who is great at football but struggles to read. Part of the Football Academy series. Tom Palmer is also published by Barrington Stoke.
Maggot Moon by Sally Gardner
A teen novel that won the 2012 Costa Children’s Book Award, about a young teenage boy called Standish Treadwell, set in a totalitarian future state. Totally brilliant for its menacing subject matter, startling prose and exceptional characters:
“There are train-track thinkers, then there’s you, Standish, a breeze in the park of imagination.”
I also want to champion Sally Gardner here, who herself is dyslexic and has spoken out about this many times. She has written much for younger readers, including the Magical Children series, and gives splendid advice such as not shying away from giving dyslexic children a different platform from which to read. Giving a dyslexic child an ereader or a tablet for reading can help build confidence as it masks what they are actually reading – and therefore reduces any peer pressure. Some readers also find the letters jump around less on the ereader, and of course you can play with the font size. You can also try an audio book alongside the printed word for more challenging titles. And never, never underestimate the joy of reading aloud to your child (whatever age) to encourage their love for reading.

[i] Dyslexia Action (2012) Dyslexia still matters.

Picture Books Aren’t Just for Preschoolers

With the wealth of picture books in today’s children’s book market, it will come as no surprise to find that they are not all targeted at pre-schoolers. Reading the rich, beautiful vocabulary in some of them, imbibing the intensity of the emotions in others, and gaining moral insight in others, demonstrate that certain picture books are destined for audiences older than the 0-5 years marketplace. Many parents seem to think that once their child can read, they should progress swiftly to chapter books. Nothing could be further from the truth. I actively persuade my older children to look at picture books for inspiration for good writing, creative ideas and simple explanations of complex ideas.

The Snatchabooksnatchabook

One recent example, The Snatchabook by Helen Docherty and Thomas Docherty, published by Scholastic, is enjoyed much more by my grown self, and my seven year old avid reader, than by the toddlers in the vicinity! The language lends itself to an older audience, and the message itself – that stealing is wrong, but that one can put wrong a right and become accepted for admitting your crimes – is for the older audience. Language such as “making amends”, vocabulary such as ‘rumours spread’, and ‘solve the mystery’ give clues that the book demands to be looked at by the older reader.

I hate schoolHonor Brown

Sometimes the ‘joke’ inside the book and the punchline at the end, also lead to the understanding that the book is intended for a much older child. I Hate School by Jeanne Willis, illustrated by Tony Ross, and published by Andersen Press, is intended for a school child with some sophistication. A lovely rhyme about a child who explains to an adult how much she hates school (with some vivid imagery…”They beat us till we bleed”) until the punchline when it’s revealed that actually the child cried on leaving:
“Yes, Honor Brown just hated school
For years and years and years,
Yet on the day that she could leave,
I found her full of tears.”
Even Year 11s leaving school would relate to this one I think.

kicking a ballWhat does daddy do

Two books that I bought for my husband are Kicking a Ball by Allan Ahlberg, illustrated by Sebastien Braun and published by Puffin books and What Does Daddy Do? by Rachel Bright, also published by Puffin. In the first, by Allan Ahlberg, it’s not even the words that transfixed me so much, as the pictures, which have the capability to produce empathetic emotions only in those who have parented. Not only that, he makes a pun on the word ‘scoring’, using it in both senses of the word, which, thankfully, goes over the head of all three of my children at present:
“Kissing my wife, bathing our baby
Kicking a ball and SCORING (maybe).”
But in essence, it’s a book about the love of kicking a ball (anywhere, anyhow) and it works for any football mad boy to man in the world.

Kicking a ball2

What Does Daddy Do? by Rachel Bright, published by Puffin, is slightly more personal, because a member of my family does a job in the financial sector that for years was impossible for me or anyone related to him to describe! The title alone was enough to get us all chuckling, but even the text itself lends itself to a more grown up humour (even though it works perfectly well for four year olds too):
daddy superhero

““And he is a superhero!”
“Like Superman? gasped Bob.
“Yes!” said Daisy, “because he has to rescue people from a big bored room”
The illustrations in this one also come alive right off the page. It’s a smashing little find.

Lastly, revisit some Julia Donaldson picture books to fully appreciate the rich vocabulary she uses. The Snail and the Whale, published by Macmillan, is a good study for anyone wishing to hone their creative writing:
“These are the waves that arched and crashed
That foamed and frolicked and sprayed and splashed”
Sometimes the most complex ideas and feelings are best explored through picture books. Michael Rosen’s Sad Book, Shaun Tan’s The Arrival and The Promise by Nicola Davies are outstanding examples of this, and all for different reasons and on different themes – but more on them another time!