Tag Archive for Taylor Sean

Friendship Picture Books

How has the first half term of school been? Has your child made lots of new friends? It’s a perpetual anxiety for a parent – whether their child has made friends at school, and the tricky dynamics of friendship continue long into adulthood. From sharing toys in reception, to peer pressure in the teen years, to sociability as adults, our ability to befriend others can be an ongoing worry:
“Why haven’t they texted me back?”

A plethora of recent picture books show us some of the pitfalls of making friends, some of the benefits of friendship, and the fun to be had in another’s company.

misadventures of frederickThe Misadventures of Frederick by Ben Manley and Emma Chichester Clark
There is so much to love about this book. Emma Chichester Clark has long been a favourite illustrator of mine, ever since Blue Kangaroo got lost on the bus, and this new book shows off Clark’s wonderful depth of expression in her characters, her warming and familiar use of colour, and the positivity that flows through scenes of childhood joy. Add to this a wonderful yet somewhat subversive story about a quirky boy called Frederick who lies in a mansion but is very bored. Emily invites him (in a series of letters) to play outside with her, but he is reticent – what if he gets hurt? Emily’s perseverance pays off, and before long the thrills of nature have made themselves abundantly apparent.

There’s a skill in a good picture book, and this one excels in every way. The growing sense of adventure and wonder of nature creeps slowly into the mansion, poking Frederick with tendrils that seek to disturb and tempt him. Emily lives the idyll of childhood – leaping freely into water (shown mid-air), riding a bike, climbing a tree.

Frederick lives surrounded by stuff, yet in much more muted colours, and all the time his wallpaper, his TV shows, his toys, remind him of what might lie outdoors. The possible bond between the children is the stream of letters (shown in text and illustration) that flow between the two like a rushing stream. There’s even a funny ending. You can buy it here.

the pirate tree
The Pirate Tree by Brigita Orel and Jennie Poh
This slightly more lyrical text reminded me of On Sudden Hill with its imaginative children who turn a simple tree into a pirate ship. At first rejected because he is new to the area, Agu is quickly permitted onto the boat when Sam realises that Agu has useful knowledge, borne from his experience of leaving Nigeria. By the end, the girl and boy have sailed the seas, discovered a deserted island, reefed the mainsail, sparred with rival pirates, and made friends.

A large amount of white space on each page allows the reader to absorb the poetical prose and textured neat illustrations, as well as fill the gaps with their own musings and imagination. Beautiful, with a stunning vocabulary. You can buy it here.

my friends

My Friends by Max Low
With a title as blatant as that, it’s clear what this book is about, but it mainly appealed to me because the illustrations reminded me of Heathcliff and Henry’s Cat (1980’s cartoons). Each page introduces a new character and their characteristics or hobbies, all with a massive dollop of humour. Pepper cooks yummy food, Olga listens to music. The trick is that on each page, the first person narrator describes how he gets involved with this new friend through this shared hobby. There’s even an imaginary friend, and also the virtues of having some time to oneself. Simple, bright and illuminating the benefit of having lots of friends who like different things. You can buy it here.

golden acorn
The Golden Acorn by Katy Hudson
A more pointed message in this longer animal story about teamwork; the book sits firmly in the ‘autumn’ canon of children’s books. The third in the series about Squirrel, Rabbit, Beaver and Tortoise, following Too Many Carrots and A Loud Winter’s Nap, this book highlights Squirrel’s desire to win The Golden Nut Hunt for the ninth time. But this year, the tournament has been turned into a team event, and so she reluctantly drags in her friends – they just don’t have the skillset to win. Of course, in the end she puts her friends before trophies. Great illustrative vignettes showing the myriad of different obstacles in the race make this a winning title – the characters’ expressions match the energy of the race.

flock
Flock by Gemma Koomen
Another celebration of nature in this whimsical picture book from a new author. Sylvia is a Tree Keeper, one of a tiny community of little people who live in trees (their heads are the size of hazelnuts). They ‘nurture and mend, gather and tend.’ Sylvia is a loner, but a chance encounter with a baby bird encourages her to rejoin her flock and find comfort in friendship. The book celebrates community spirit, and will be loved by youngsters who like their picture books full of tiny people from old-fashioned magical lands – the Tree Keepers are pictured playing musical instruments, dancing around the maypole, and celebrating with wholesome homemade food. The main illustrative treat comes not from the Tree Keepers though, but from the flock of birds, the ‘thousands of wings beating as one’. A good guide to nature as well as to neighbourliness. You can buy it here.

humperdink
Humperdink Our Elephant Friend by Sean Taylor, illustrated by Clare Alexander
The illustrations in this young picture book are less intricate, slightly vaguer and more haphazard, which lends well to the playgroup setting. With black outlines and careful choice of colour, the playgroup feels authentic and familiar – a yellow rug on the floor, coloured building blocks, and much role play; the children hail from a variety of different backgrounds. Weirdly enough, the new kid isn’t a kid at all, but an elephant. And he fits in as well as a bull in a china shop, despite the children’s best efforts. In the end of course, they discover how he can contribute to the group.

Like some of the other picture books here, the book has a gentle nod towards the benefits of nature – the children venturing into the jungle with the elephant and finding a plethora of fun activities there. It’s a magical title, adding huge excitement to normal tales of playgroup friendship, and of course giving the message that inclusivity is key. There’s a wonderful exuberance to the illustrations here – children love slides! You can buy it here.

we are together

We Are Together by Britta Teckentrup
Teckentrup has a distinctive style all of her own, and it is easy to spot her books in the library. Inside, the books all sing with a similar rhythm, a lovely rhyming poetry. And many tend to have cutouts within, giving an extra physical dimension to the book. We Are Together has all of these, and here they work particularly well. The message is unity and teamwork – the power of a group, particularly a diverse group who are supportive of each other. With references to needing support in unhappy or difficult times, with an understanding that we are small in comparison to the big world, and an absolute appreciation of nature all the way through, this is a neatly told message. The cutouts provide endless amusement and bring a smile – each page reveals the group to be larger and larger – lots of small people eventually making a circle. It reminded me of the Coca Cola advert of old, teaching the world to sing. You can buy it here.

With thanks to Two Hoots, Lantana Press, Otter-Barry Books, Curious Fox, Frances Lincoln, Words&Pictures and Little Tiger Press for the review copies.

Picture Book Round Up Spring 2019: Animals

the big race
The Big Race by David Barrow
Never normally one to agree with awarding certificates simply for taking part, this book may have changed my mind.

Aardvark is small and doesn’t have the skillset of the other animals, the crocodile, cheetah, buffalo and African hoopoe, taking part in the race. And stamina, strength and speed are required in this ‘great race’, which involves running, cycling, diving off a waterfall, swimming, tightrope walking, rope swinging and parachuting from a hot air balloon – all in the natural African landscape.

Aardvark doesn’t give up, showing resilience all the way through – battling on her scooter against the other animals’ bikes, using armbands to swim underwater – never succumbing to her tiredness and misfortune.  She’s the only one whose parachute goes awry, for example. And she shows immense pleasure at her medal – simply being rewarded for taking part (as she should, this is one tough race!).

Barrow’s illustrations throughout are a delight. Any animal race will be reminiscent of The Hare and the Tortoise, but Barrow’s vision is modern and fresh, with relentless movement and humour in the pictures. You can buy it here.

kiss the crocodile
Kiss the Crocodile by Sean Taylor and Ben Mantle
This playful, happy book also features a group of animals, this time as friends, a monkey, a tortoise and an anteater, playing in their natural habitat, splashing in rivers, making up monsters, doing silly dancing. They are a little intimidated to play with Little Crocodile though, with his many teeth and sharp claws. The naughty Crocodile mother (and adult readers will laugh inwardly here) suggests a game of ‘Kiss the Crocodile’, a sort of daring game.

This is, in essence, a simple and oft-repeated message about letting everyone join in, but the illustrations are so impossibly endearing, the monkey so impish, the crocodile so self-assured, that it makes reading an absolute pleasure. Even more pleasure if you read it aloud (with its repetition and suspense). Well executed and great fun. Kissable. You can buy it here.

dinosaur department store
The Dinosaur Department Store by Lily Murray and Richard Merritt
Looking for something more ferocious than a crocodile – how about a dinosaur? The pictures tell the reader that Eliza Jane (a human girl) is obsessed with dinosaurs, from dressing up as one, to the shape of her cuddly toy, to the pictures adorning her walls. So when, rather delightfully, she tells her parents that now she is four she wants a real dinosaur (rhyming is throughout), there is only one place to visit – the dinosaur department store.

Here, with flourish and eccentricity, the department store owner shows Eliza Jane all the different types of dinosaurs, only to be annoyed that his time has been wasted when she declares at the end that she no longer wants a dinosaur pet. Why not? The clues have been in the pictures all along. An excellent rhyming picture book that’s vibrant, exuberant and fun, with pictures telling the other half of the story. Highly recommend. You can buy it here.

lots of frogs
Lots of Frogs by Howard Calvert and Claudia Boldt
More fun and frolics and rhymes in this jumping book about frogs. Tommy brings his box of frogs into school, and unfortunately for the staff, they don’t remain in the box for long. Calvert has great fun exploring the different places around the school that the frogs might inhabit (including the Headteacher’s hair), and also ways in which Tommy might capture them again.

What’s more Calvert, and illustrator Boldt, imbue the frogs with lots of personality – they are as cheeky as monkeys. Lots to admire here – the frogs almost seem to be like schoolchildren themselves – very human, and Calvert introduces numbers, eating habits and so on. One slightly dodgy rhyme, but on the whole a great fun read that will have the class clamouring to bring in their own pets. Or certainly to be read the story again. You can buy it here.

five more minutes
Five More Minutes by Marta Altes
Anthropomorphic foxes in this sympathetic look at how children and parents view the concept of time differently. Reminiscent of some of the Jill Murphy picture books, this representation of a sprightly family and their everyday lives is both wise and heartwarming. Five more minutes means something very different for the child or adult as they view the various moments in their lives. For Dad (the primary caregiver), five more minutes at a children’s party feels long whereas five more minutes in bed feels short.

On the way to school, fox is doubtful of his father’s protestations that there is no time – they need to hurry – but the young fox makes time for jumping in puddles, watching the birds and more. Conversely, for the young fox, waiting for a cake to bake takes ages: there is too much time. The illustrations are kind and forgiving, the Dad always attentive and loving, the house ordinary and familiar, the expressions well-articulated. Take a particular look at the little foxes’ faces when eating the cupcakes. Some things are worth waiting for. Pre-order your picture book here now.

what clara saw
What Clara Saw by Jessica Meserve
Meserve has a way with illustration. Her child characters are hugely differentiated, personalities zinging from the page, and she holds an astounding attention to detail – the shoelaces of the children like little wings, the crafting of the teacher, Mr Biggity, as condescending, before the reader has even read a word. Is it his long nose, his large nostril, the upturn of his toe, his hand positioning, the way his eye glances back at the children. He’s going to be tricky.

And thus it proves, on an outing to a wildlife park, Mr Biggity dismisses the animals as being vastly inferior, when Clara, with the red coat, notices that animals are rather good at communicating and feeling. The reader will notice how observant Clara is, and if they too are observant, they’ll witness a whole other story just by ‘reading the pictures’ rather than listening to the text. A book that encourages thought and debate about how much animals feel, and perhaps even about how much we should stand up for what we believe to be true rather than being mindlessly fed false information. Exquisite illustrations. You can buy it here.

rhino neil
Rhino Neil by Mini Goss
A simpler message in this animal book about not judging someone from the way they look. Rhino Neil is huge and the other animals stay away from him. After all, he has a huge horn that might spike, fearsome feet that trample, and a tremendous tummy that can fit lots in it, as well as a big bottom that could squash everyone.

When an even bigger animal arrives by truck, the animals are all scared – except for Rhino Neil, who accepts the new elephant as his friend – and sometimes even feels small next to him. It’s not fully explained where the animals are – a wildlife park perhaps – and it’s a shame that all the animals aren’t accepting and make friends with the rhino and elephant at the end, despite their size, but this is an interesting take on the idea of size and may entertain some. Bright images and close-ups of body parts. You can buy it here.

Riding a Donkey Backwards

riding a donkey backwardsAs we celebrate the month of Ramadan, and think about how to increase diversity and representation in the books our children are reading, this sumptuous hardback, Riding a Donkey Backwards dropped onto my doormat, and I had to share it with you. It’s a collection of 21 tales and riddles about a trickster known across Muslim culture. Mulla Nasruddin is both the wisest man and the biggest fool. Through telling some of his stories, all contained on one or two pages, Sean Taylor, the Khayaal Theatre, and Shirin Adl bring the tales to life with drama and creativity.

Each tale is only a paragraph or two long – spanning one or two pages, with full double page colour collage illustrations. The text is jaunty and chatty, as befits the subject, and some tales and riddles leave a wry smile, others pose philosophical questions. Many invite critical thinking, but there are those that are just silly – on purpose. The text feels modern, but the illustrations feel traditional – set in familiar age-old landscapes, such as a school, a kitchen table, a market place. A Nice Steam Bath is illustrated to look as if it’s a wordless comic strip or an ancient scroll, and many of the collages use domestic materials such as a child might use: cotton wool beards, glass bead rivers. They are bright and welcoming, playful and intelligent.

Below, Sean Taylor explains about the book.

How did Riding a Donkey Backwards come about?

“It came about, indirectly, because of a terror attack. Back on 7th January 2015, there was a massacre in Paris, at the offices of Charlie Hebdo magazine. That day, I could feel people in the UK were shaken by the nearness of the violence, and I sensed some ‘retreating into shells’ going on. This made me want to do the opposite. At an event at Shakespeare’s Globe about 12 years previously, I’d met Luqman Ali and he’d given me a leaflet about Khayaal Theatre. Khayaal is a theatre company founded by him and Eleanor Martin. It is dedicated to showcasing the rich traditions of story, poetry and humour in Muslim cultures, and also to building engagement between Muslim communities and the wider world. I kept the leaflet Luqman had given me. Sometimes I’d come across it, wonder if there might be some way of collaborating with Khayaal, and decide probably not. But, that day, I wrote to Luqman. Looking back, my message said, among other things:

I have no more connection with, or understanding of, the Islamic world than you would expect from a man with an interest in stories and poetry who grew up in the home counties of England. My strongest connections are, in fact, not to the east, but to the west. My wife is from, Brazil. We have lived there on and off over the past twenty years. But rather than seeing these things as obstacles, I shall, for the sake of this message, see them as reasons for making connection. Might we meet? Might we talk a bit about stories, and about theatre and about work with young people? Might something fruitful result from this impulse to reach out? ”

What happened next?

“We did meet, at the British Library, a few weeks later. And it was clear that, though we are from quite different cultural backgrounds, we had a lot in common in terms of our work around story and education, and our shared interest in the imagination, dreams and humour. So it seemed natural to try to find a way to work together. I had in mind there might be ways Khayaal could make use of my experience of writing for theatre. Actually, they expressed an interest in writing a children’s book. So the idea of retelling some of the stories of Mulla Nasruddin in a publication for young readers was born. I thought newly-founded Otter-Barry Books might show interest in the project. And I’m happy to say they did.”

Who exactly is Mulla Nasruddin?

“There’s no exact answer. Some say Nasruddin was a real man who lived in the thirteenth century. Nobody knows for sure! Many different countries claim to be his birthplace, including Turkey and Iran. In the introduction to the book we say:

He has many names because stories about him are told in many different countries. In Turkey he is Hodja. In Central Asia he is Afandi. The Arabs know him as Joha. Others call him Mulla Nasruddin. He is a trickster. And Muslims all over the world love him because he makes them laugh. If he doesn’t make you laugh, he will certainly make you think – and perhaps think sideways instead of straight ahead. He may even make your thoughts do somersaults inside your mind!”

Why retell these Nasruddin stories?

“They are age-old stories, but I think they are absolutely relevant to the times we live in. Nasruddin challenges fixed ways of looking at our world, and stuck ways of behaving. So the stories about him fly in the face of fundamentalist thinking – whether it be the single-track thinking of Islamist fundamentalism or the equally narrow thinking of Islamophobia. Take a story like the one we’ve called They Can’t Both Be Right! In this, Mulla Nasruddin is asked to settle an argument between two men, in a tea house. Nasruddin listens to the first man and says, “You are right.” Then he listens to the second man and says, “You are right.” Then the owner of the tea-house says, “Well, they can’t both be right!” And Nasruddin says, “You are right!” This is a brilliant, light-hearted way of pointing out that the world cannot be seen in black and white (as more and more people seem happy to see it.) In another story, called Don’t Ask Me! the donkey Nasruddin is riding is startled by a snake. As the donkey gallops madly off, a young farmer calls out, “Where are you going, Nasruddin?” Nasruddin calls back, “Don’t ask me! Ask the donkey!” Can you feel how this has a message for anyone who thinks they have simple answers to the challenges of our times? When an out-of-control donkey is carrying you, how can you sit there stiffly certain about where you are going? At one level this tale is just a funny anecdote. But scratch its surface (or the surface of the other stories in our book) and you find wisdom. Nasruddin asks fresh questions in the face of ready-made answers. The stories in Riding a Donkey Backwards offer new ways of thinking to anyone numbed by the world, or feeling driven to recrimination and aggression. These are reasons why we wanted to bring Nasruddin, his provocations and his heartfelt laughter to life for young readers.”

How was the book created?

“Khayaal Theatre’s Eleanor Martin joined Luqman and me in the writing process. And it turned out to be a fruitful collaboration, with lots of discussion, and drafts to-ing and fro-ing as we worked out which Nasruddin stories to include and how to tell them on the page. Otter-Barry Books brought Iranian illustrator Shirin Adl on board, and Shirin came up with the wonderfully crafted illustrations which make Riding a Donkey Backwards so beautiful to look at.”

With thanks to Sean Taylor. You can buy Riding a Donkey Backwards here.

Summer 2017 Round-Up

It’s been a tough year to round down the number of books on the desk to just a few highlights for summer reading. And I have to admit that many of my choices are continuations of superb new series, because which child doesn’t love a good meaty series, especially when the writing is as stunning as in those picked below?

Picture Books:

Poppy and the Blooms by Fiona Woodcock sets the tone for summer with its soft colour palette contrasting with its feisty zesty skateboarding wildflower characters. With an environmental message, teamwork, and clever inventive illustrations of urban life, this is an expressive picture book. Emily Gravett is a firm favourite picture book author, and her latest, Old Hat, is full of delightful images. A dog tries desperately to keep up with hat fashions, phenomenally fails but ends up setting an entirely new trend in the process. Surprising, funny, and rather attractive (look out for the traffic cone hat).


More animals in The Nut Stayed Shut by Mike Henson. A cracking read in almost comic book style that aims to show patience pays off. The squirrel can’t open his nut, even with an elephant or a digger. The rhyming text comically explains his dilemma, and a rather animated owl at first documents and then supports his friend. Funny, cartoon-like, and will teach the very littlest about slapstick. For those with a dryer wit and sardonic humour, try I Dare You by Reece Wykes. Two gorillas dare each other in an eating challenge that gets ever more ridiculous. A perfect game of one-upmanship soon degenerates into farce. You have to have as strong a stomach as the gorillas to read this to a sensitive toddler – beware, it doesn’t end well for one of the gorillas. Great fun lies in the illustrations, particularly for adults!


For a human who wants to be an animal, you can’t better I am Actually a Penguin by Sean Taylor, illustrated by Kasia Matyjaszek. Although the title sounds as if it’s Lola speaking from Charlie and Lola, and replicates the more restrictive older brother, this little girl is even more stubborn than Lola. Her family try to implore her to remove her costume, to not unroll toilet paper across the sofa as snow, to not come down the stairs head first in penguin slide mode, but all to no avail. Then finally, she realises she cannot go to school dressed as a penguin – the twist in the ending is equally endearing. A great book for anyone who’s ever schlepped around a stubborn fancy-dress clad toddler, or anyone with a warm sense of humour. More siblings in My Sister is Bigger Than Me by Kate Maryon and Lisa Stubbs. It strikes the perfect dichotomy between wanting a big sister to play and yet not wanting them to totally dominate and rule the games. It’s all love and comfort in the end of course. Quite long, but the rhyme zips you through.

Newly Independent Readers (age 6+ ish):

Those moving onto chapter books will adore the latest offerings here. Experienced author Chris Higgins teams up with illustrator Emily MacKenzie with a new series about a girl called Bella who has just moved house, Trouble Next Door. Bella is a little wobbly until she meets next-door-neighbour Magda. The only problem is that Magda tends to push fun into trouble. Beautifully illustrated and packed full with the kind of winsome anecdotes and age appropriate worries, all resolved with Higgin’s storytelling aplomb. Another fun author is Emma Barnes with her new series Chloe’s Club about three girls, Chloe, Eliza and Aisha, the second of which is just published and called Chloe’s Secret Fairy Godmother Club, illustrated by Mike Love. Inspired by The Secret Seven, clubs are fun for passwords, badges and secret names among other things. The Godmother club is inspired by Eliza’s news that she’s about to become a big sister.

Harriet Muncaster continues to churn out Isadora Moon titles, the latest being Isadora Moon Gets in Trouble. Good thing too, the kids in the library can’t get enough of these, and they’re great for re-reading. Lastly, one of my favourite series continues with new title Super Dog. Wigglesbottom Primary: Super Dog by Pamela Butchart and Becka Moor is a perfectly pitched school story (three in one book), that pleases every child who picks it up. Funny yes, and filled with school dinners, friendships and speculation.

Middle Grade (age 8+ ish):

One of the books of the year for this age group is Letters from the Lighthouse by Emma Carroll. All Carroll’s novels exude a flowing prose, and all tell a great historical story with the lightest of touches. This is no exception. Set in 1941, Olive is evacuated to the coast after a London air raid in which her sister goes missing. But there are mysteries afoot on the Devonshire coast where Olive and her brother stay with the lighthouse keeper. What is his connection to her missing sister? And why is he stockpiling food? With a wonderful use of chapter headings – Keep Calm and Carry On, Careless Talk Costs Lives and so on, the history comes to life as the mystery unfolds. So whether it’s a beach read or for back to school, this tale is set to be an enduring Second World War children’s favourite.

Other gems to look out for are Mold and the Poison Plot by Lorraine Gregory, a debut novel told in Mold’s idiosyncratic dialect in a fantasy world about an unlikely hero. Hilariously funny with smells galore. Gregory has captured the essence of children’s literature – bravery, overcoming bullies, seeing past difference, looking out for the world around us and more. Don’t miss. More hilarity ensues in The Big Fat Totally Bonkers Diary of Pig by Emer Stamp. Going from strength to strength, this fourth in the series continues with Pig’s tales of his adventures, written diary format – with each day being named after how it went, for example, Badfartsyday and Trauma-Morn. It’s inevitable that any book set on a farm and narrated from the point of view of the animals will have connotations with Animal Farm, and even this light-hearted text, purposely written with incorrect grammar, and full of high jinks, farts and slapstick, draws some comparison. Stamp has great fun with Pig’s misunderstanding of idioms, his appalling grammar, and general pigginess, as well as playing up the stereotypes of soldier and warfare, as the plot pivots on a new Battle of the Cow Shed (sorry, Orwell). Kids adore this series. They recognise that although it seems inherently silly on the surface, it’s actually written with acuity and a great sense of structure.

Chunkier and more literary are Beetle Queen by MG Leonard and The Night Spinner by Abi Elphinstone. I reviewed Beetle Boy here, and it was included in many ‘best of’ lists for 2016. Earlier this year, the sequel, Beetle Queen was published. The focus this time shifts to the villain of the piece, Lucretia Cutter – just as duplicitous and delightfully dangerous as before – she induces the kind of fear as when a tarantula crawls across your skin. The story is littered with a plethora of entomological vocabulary, but there is a glossary at the back to help with the scientific language. Again, Leonard captures in a nutshell the beauty of the children’s novel – overcoming difficulties and fears, a clever comic undertone and a plot that sends you scurrying towards the end. I particularly love protagonist Darkus and his relationship with his father.

Rich villains and brave protagonists abound in Abi Elphinstone’s finale to her trilogy that started with The Dreamsnatcher. The Night Spinner is perhaps the best of the three, in which Moll must find the last Amulet in order to defeat the Shadowmasks. In the same vein as the other books, this is an adventure story through and through, as Moll and her allies traverse dangerous and thrilling landscapes, from wildernesses to mountain peaks, always at risk from shadowy villains, with Moll in grand pursuit of saving her friends as well as herself. But this last in the series is definitely the most compelling. The characters have matured, so that there is more thoughtfulness, more depth to both their actions and their motivations, and there is, if anything, an increased tenderness between the humans and their animal friends – drawn of course from Pullman’s daemons – but in this case Moll’s wildcat, and Siddy’s ferret. What is magical about this series is the deep darkness that Elphinstone is able to depict without it being too daunting for a child reader. If anything, it simply adds to the impression of the tumultuous task set for her protagonist – and matches the wide expanse of landscape….This is indeed a story for our times, a tale of perseverance and grit.

Lastly, for those seeking a graphic novel, it doesn’t get much more topnotch than Roller Girl by Victoria Jamieson. An import from the States, Jamieson brings her love of roller derby to a school transition story as she tells Astrid’s coming-of-age over one summer before Junior High. Lapped up by my testers, our heroine here is authentically drawn with much pathos, and readers warm to the sport as much as to the girl. A rip-rolling read.

For those who like a little less story in their books, there is also a good crop of non-fiction to keep readers busy. The Big Bird Spot by Matt Sewell reads like a Where’s Wally nature guide. The book is intended to inspire children to birdwatch in the great outdoors, but also serves as a useful activity in searching for the camouflaged bird on the page. It traverses the world with its scenes, and gives information on species and habitats. Vibrant and luminous.

Another round the world adventure is In Focus: Cities by Libby Walden, a beautiful production that features ten illustrators each showcasing, in their own eclectic way, ten famous cities from around the world including Tokyo, Rome and Istanbul. Giant flaps on each spread reveal further cultural, social and historical identities. Look for the Paris escargot, Moscow’s border guard and his dog, and Charlie in Sydney! A great collaborative idea, which will make you long for even longer vacations.

And lastly, for those who have children bored at the thought of dragging round museums, buy them a copy of The British Museum’s Maurice the Museum Mouse’s Amazing Ancient Facts and Jokes by Tracey Turner, illustrated by Mark Beech. They won’t be bored for long regaling you with such masterpieces as “Which ancient civilisation was the most untidy? Mess-opotamia.” Groan away. That’s it for the summer. MinervaReads will return in September with back to school books and a review of the new fabulous book by Katherine Rundell. Watch this space.

The Lollies

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

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

Best Laugh Out Loud Picture Book

hoot owl

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

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

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

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

And

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

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

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

slug needs a hug

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

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

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

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

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

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

gracie grabbit

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

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

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

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

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

i need a wee

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The other categories are as follows:

Best Laugh Out Loud Book for 6-8 year olds

Badly Drawn Beth by Jem Packer and Duncan McCoshan

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

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

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

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

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

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

Emily Sparkes and the Friendship Fiasco by Ruth Fitzgerald

The Parent Agency by David Baddiel and Jim Field

 

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