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Spring Picture Book Round-Up

mole in a black and white hole
Seldom has a picture book quite embraced how I feel right now as
Mole in a Black and White Hole by Tereza Sediva. With a die-cut hole on the cover into the mole’s black and white house, it feels like the perfect lockdown book. Mole is first seen deep underground in his hole with a television and a book for comfort. He’s clearly been in lockdown for as long as I have. His consolation is a bright pink chandelier – represented here by a vivid neon orange blob – representative in fact of a root vegetable, plugging the gap between the outside world and Mole’s hole.

During the course of the book, the ‘chandelier’ tells Mole of all the wondrous (neon and brightly colourful) happenings above ground, until one day, the ‘chandelier’ disappears. Initially, it leaves a hole in Mole’s heart too, as he misses his friend and the world is blacker than ever, despite the sunbeam reaching through the gap. But then Mole ventures forth, and life becomes not so black and white.

This is a beautifully executed picture book – with Mole as the expressive centrepiece to a world that proves to be full of fascination, friendship, and of course colour. Readers will take enormous pleasure from the contrast between the world below and that above – cleverly using the centrefold horizontally to draw the difference – but also from the careful layering of colour images, which interweave and seem almost transparent in their rendering. A wonderful spring awakening, and a cheerful reminder for the light at the end of every tunnel. Available for pre-order here but not published until June, I hope I can leave my black hole before then. In the meantime…

what about me said the flea
Children have found plenty of inspiration for writing during lockdowns, despite the world essentially shrinking on them, and What About Me? Said the Flea by Lily Murray and Richard Merritt is a great antidote to the idea that stories have to be about huge, powerful forces. Sometimes, the most exquisite inspiration is in the small everyday things.

This really is one of the most exciting and endearing picture books I’ve seen in some time. It happily marries text and pictures, with the pictures expressing beyond the story most eloquently. Sophia is trying to write a story, and looking for inspiration. All sorts of things present themselves as perfect protagonists: a bear (all good books have one apparently), a lion, a unicorn, a dinosaur, but there is also one who is jumping and squeaking to make itself heard and Sophia just can’t see it. Working on both a literal and metaphorical level, this is a great idea for a picture book , allowing readers to explore the ideas of inspiration, creativity, inclusion and so much more, but it is also just extraordinarily fun.

The pictures give the game away – at first the flea is fairly well hidden, but eventually the illustrator illuminates the flea with flashing lights and arrows. And Sophia still misses it! A clever reader will also see where the flea originated!

But the pictures do more than point out the flea – they give a real testament to each animal and its personality. The animals are shown in a whole helter-skelter of scenes, from a comedy stage to a swimming pool, the ocean, a boxing ring and more. Each is also imbued with a raft of humorous elements, including a bears’ picnic, and even Sophia’s desk itself (which gives more than a clue as to where inspiration comes from…anywhere!)

The ending is great fun. Poor flea. Although you’ll be delighted to hear that this author/illustrator pairing aren’t the first to focus on a flea. Samson the Mighty Flea by Angela McAllister and Nathan Reed would make a delightful companion book. There is a use to fleas after all. And What About Me? Said the Flea, available here, is a triumph.

luna loves art
Perhaps when children do go back to school, they’ll once again go on school trips. If not, then at least they can relive one in Luna Loves Art by Joseph Coelho and Fiona Lumbers. We first met Luna in Luna Loves Library Day but this picture book nicely captures a school trip to an art gallery with our exuberant, enthusiastic protagonist.

Luna is joyful to be in the art gallery, but classmate Finn doesn’t seem sure. In fact, he seems sad. Can Luna have an excellent day out, but also make Finn smile?

The illustrations here are observational and meticulously crafted – each child with their own unique personality, each person reacting differently to each painting in the art gallery, and cleverly, the paintings are all neat picture book reproductions of real art from Malevich’s Black Square to Moore’s sculpture to Henri Rousseau. Luna feels as if the sunflowers in the Van Gogh painting are alive because the painting is so thick – and the flowers burst out of the frame in Lumbers’ rendering. Luna warns Finn not to touch, and this is a wonderful evocation of the visceral quality of the paintings, as well as the very human reaction of Luna – wanting to do no wrong.

Not only is this a wonderful introduction to the power and beauty of art, and the excitement of a school trip (although both I and my test audience were very worried that the children in the story didn’t stop for lunch or a toilet break, key features of our own school trips), but it is also a lovely story of both family and friend dynamics.

The art installation page is glorious, but full marks to Luna’s teacher, who lets the class loose in the gift shop! You can buy your own gift here.

the perfect fit
Lastly, and by no means least – all four of these picture books are worth purchasing immediately – is The Perfect Fit by Naomi and James Jones. For the youngest children, beginning to make sense of the world and their place within it, and also beginning to recognise first shapes, colours and patterns, this is a pleasing story about a winsome triangle attempting to fit in with others.

Triangle has fun with the circles, but she doesn’t roll with them. She likes the squares but stacking is hard. So, she sets off to find others more like her. By the end, of course, she realises that being in a diverse group of shapes is actually the most fun.

The Jones pairing make a fabulous fit in this book, consolidating the ideas in both text and image, placing single sentences in a variety of spaces, slanting up and down or centred in the middle of the page, to fit with the images that tell the story too. And the images are simple – shapes coloured in primary and secondary colours, either coming together, or leaving white spaces between to explore what fits and what doesn’t.

Just as children make images from geometric shapes, so does the illustrator here. My children and I used to do this with felt shapes. Here, a boat is made from two squares, a simple black line, and a triangle sail. An ice cream is formed from a hexagon on top of an upside-down triangle, the flake drawn in simple black lines.

Of course, there are various underlying messages. We might be individual shapes, but we all want to come together as a group – it’s more fun. (From lockdown, we now know how much we are missing other people in all their shapes and sizes). But also, this is about inclusion. An array of shapes makes for a more diverse and interesting set of patterns. Four yellow triangles aren’t nearly as fun to play with as a green hexagon, a blue circle, a red square and a yellow triangle. Looking and acting the same aren’t always necessary.

But also, and more subliminally, is the message of a shared sense of purpose. The different shapes need to work together to collectively create a new shape, to form an image, to play.

This is a simply executed, yet positive and clever book. A narrative story running through, personifying a shape who’s lost their tribe, but then the welcoming spirit of other tribes, and the coming together of all. You can buy it here.

With thanks to Thames and Hudson, Buster Books, OUP, and Andersen Press for the review copies. 

Latest Book Review

The Muddlemoor Mysteries: Peril at the Bake Off by Ruth Quayle, illustrated by Marta Kissi

muddlemoor mysteries
Granny is baking her own grandma’s secret recipe to win the Great Village Bake Off. It’s complicated by the fact that she has her three grandchildren staying: Tom, Pip, and our narrator, Joe Robinson. However, things get even messier when her recipe goes missing, and the children decide to solve the mystery of who has stolen it.

In the annual fiercely competitive bake off, it seems natural that one of the Muddlemoor neighbours may want to stop Granny winning, and seeing as the children have little better to do during their holidays, they set off to find out the culprit. Unfortunately, though, they are better eaters of cake than mystery solvers.

With a winning narrative voice, not unlike that of Izzy’s in Pamela Butchart’s great series of books for younger readers, Joe Robinson sees things from a fairly naïve point of view, sharing his intimate thoughts with the reader, whilst really the reader is one step ahead of him. It’s a nice touch, and leads to the inevitable trouble he and his cousins get themselves into. At the same time, the children do their best to channel their inner Secret Seven, exploring motives and picking up clues, in order to solve the simple mystery.

There is so much to like in this first of a new series, from the map at the beginning of the book, which outlines the village, to the periphery characters, which include a phone-obsessed teenager and a former professional spy. There are also oodles of food descriptions in the text. Quayle excels at pointing out the common misconceptions of children, but also the things that children notice, including the difference in the ways the cousins are being raised, to their very different personalities. The conversational, chatty style of the narration, with occasional use of capitals for hyperbole, makes the story feel intimate and real, and the rambling stories to illustrate their experiences and truisms gives the text enormous relatability.

Joe Robinson is a great protagonist, and even more admirable is the way in which he is depicted as more of a follower than a leader, despite being the main character, and all the more likeable for it. He is flawed and a scamp, but with a heart in the right place.

Illustrated throughout with expressive black and white pictures, this is a particularly adept portrayal of the different characters in a small village, and how their quirks come to make them lovable. A community-feel, diverse characterisation, and a large dollop of humour make this a recipe for success. A lovely addition to younger fiction for fluent readers.

With thanks to Andersen Press for the review copy.