Let’s Find Fred: A Guest Post from Steven Lenton

Was it the roving eyes on the cover (they actually move!)? The use of the word In-Fred-ible? Or simply the cuteness of his face? I can’t be sure, but I fell in love with Fred the panda instantaneously. It was love at first read.

Let’s Find Fred is the latest offering from author/illustrator Steven Lenton, illustrator of Shifty McGifty by Tracey Corderoy, various Frank Cottrell-Boyce books, and Princess Daisy and the Nincompoop Knights.

Each night Stanley the zoo keeper tucks up his animals in their beds, but by the time he reaches Fred to read him his bedtime story, Fred has escaped – on an adventure filled with dreams of candyfloss, balloons and parties. As any parent of more than one child will know, this is a common occurrence – the little rascals often escape from their beds in search of night-time adventures.

What follows is a panda chase through the town. This is where the book turns magical, for each spread is set in a different vicinity of the town, and unfortunately for Stanley, there are panda images everywhere, or things that look suspiciously like Fred, but aren’t – from black and white dogs in a limousine, to black and white footballs in the newspaper.

But most cleverly, as Steven highlights below – are the numerous adult cultural references, more often than not with a little bit of Panda involved. I’ve had the book for weeks, and still not exhausted examining each spread. It’s the kind of book you read to your child at bedtime, but then whisk out of the room so that you can peruse it yourself later, but also so that they don’t grab a torch and read it after lights out, having their own little panda-themed night-time adventure. And without further panda-monium, here is Steven to tell you about how much fun he had writing/drawing the book:

My picture books have become known for their extra details and layers of additional humour. I think it’s important that both children and the parents who read books at bedtime have fun doing so. For example in the Shifty McGifty series there is a spider on every double spread of the picture books and twenty spiders to find in each of the fiction titles. In Princess Daisy and the Dragon and the Nincompoop Knights there is a mischievous little snail to spot and in Let’s Find Fred there’s a little white butterfly…

To date, Let’s Find Fred is certainly my busiest book!  There is a fun narrative that follows the exhausting chase of Stanley and Fred, but the most fun is the re-readability, and oodles of extra characters and little relationships to spot in all the larger ‘zoomed out’ spreads.

Because there are so many characters in the book I thought it would be great fun to base some of the characters on real people, and a few characters mums and dads might know too – extra talking points for family discussion if you like!

One of the first characters I added was Kylie – there was always going to be a carousel in the funfair spread and it instantly reminded me of the hilariously juddery Carousel in the ‘Got To Be Certain’ video – watch it on YouTube with a cuppa, it’s really (quite) funny.

Other familiar faces to find include;

  • Four Beatles (not beetles!)
  • Numerous famous paintings in the art gallery spread – The Panda with the Pearl Earring and Whistler’s Panda to name but two…
  • Truly Scrumptious from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (the inspiration behind my twitter name @2dscrumptious!)
  • The Panda of the Opera
  • Fred Astaire
  • A grandma reading Fifty Sheds in Grey
  • And Panda Travolta

And so many more.

I was at a wedding recently and I took along a copy of Fred for the children there – the first read through went well, but then what followed was LITERALLY HOURS of Fred-based finding!  We turned the book into a game of ‘Can you find the…’ and it entertained not only the children, but also the adults, who we encouraged to look for the tiniest of details.  My tip is to start by finding Fred, then the white butterfly, and then start finding one-off things in the book such as the veeeeeeeeeery long sausage dog (somewhere in the gallery).

I really hope that everyone gains as much enjoyment from Fred, as I and the Scholastic team had when making it!


With huge thanks to Steven for sending across his thoughts. You can buy Let’s Find Fred here. Please do, you’ll love the text as much as I do “He’s a panda and it’s past his bedtime!”, and you can tell me where the white butterfly is hiding…

Vincent’s Starry Night and other Stories: A Children’s History of Art by Michael Bird, illustrated by Kate Evans


Large books can be daunting for some children, and this one, at a hefty 336 pages, is certainly a doorstopper. Even the cover looks fairly adult, with its Van Gogh styled image, reflecting both the artist himself and the starry night he is painting. But every page in this volume has earned its place, and every page is worth reading, whether it is in chronological order, or simply sampled at will.

Like those huge narrative histories – A Little History of the World by Ernst Gombrich or Our Island Story by H E Marshall, this will no doubt become a history of art classic read for children.

At a time when exam boards are ditching A Level History of Art, the book is even more important for those who believe that the study and knowledge of classics in the full sense of the word is a vital component of history and an essential lesson for modern times. Classical works of art inform our ideas of history, thread storytelling through the ages, and can give one a sense of cultural identity. They are an integral part of politics (think Elgin marbles at a very base level), and a stalwart part of our current culture, which is starkly visual.

So, to the book. This is essentially a narrative guide through art history from prehistoric to modern day, comprising 68 illustrated short stories that take either an individual artist, or a particular style of painting, or architecture, and explain not only the images and artistry, but the entire background of culture or religion, using a story structure of a person or peoples.

Each story incorporates what was going on in history at the time the artist was painting, as well as the thoughts and spaces created by that artist. For example, the chapter on Giotto explains, through Bird imagining Giotto’s thoughts to himself, how he reintroduced the technique of drawing as close to nature as possible – or in Bird’s attributed thoughts to Giotto:

‘I want to tell stories in paintings, so that people will think “That’s how it would have looked if I’d been there.”.’

This imagined speech, and chapter, not only explores Giotto’s approach to painting, but also his thought process and the effect his paintings had. It also explains fresco painting, and the link between his paintings and the ancient Greek and Roman artists, as well as immortality through fame. What’s brilliant though, is that the chapter is written in such easy, modern conversational prose that it makes Giotto and his era feel relevant and real.

Bird flits between first person, third person, past tense and present tense, depending on what’s happening in the chapter and what he’s trying to explain. This is great as he has picked well – and each chapter feels fresh and illuminates in a different way.

The chapter on Vermeer even mixes the tenses to explore a revelation in Vermeer’s career, and to explain how he uses it, what he had painted before, and what he will do in the future. It explores his discovery of a new magnifying glass and the way it makes things look. He sees the laundry sheet more clearly “whiteness like sunlight on a snowy mountain,” although Bird points out that this is his imagination. “Vermeer has never seen a real mountain. All around Delft the flat Dutch countryside stretches to the horizon.”

Vermeer goes from painting historical scenes to painting domestic subjects – the life around him, which gives modern readers a sense of the artist himself but also a glimpse of social history of that time. Bird also parallels the death of Rembrandt in this chapter, giving context of the art world, as well as exploring Vermeer’s use of colour, and makes the reader think about how to look at a painting.

Of course, this is a book about the visual arts, and so equally important to the text are the illustrations. There is a mix here of reproductions, such as Vermeer’s The Love Letter, and fresh illustrations and interpretations by Kate Evans, including artists at their easels, scenes from their windows and so on.

It’s going to be a difficult selection, narrowing down the whole of the history of art – even to 336 pages, and there is definitely a focus on Western art here, but there is also broad scope beyond the lives of famous artists. From cave paintings, ceramics, stained glass, the architects of Angkor Wat to city art maps, such as Florence and New York, to the African art and thoughts of El Anatsui and his use of adinkra.

There is also a wonderful glossary and list of artworks. A really good, thought-provoking and illuminating read. You can buy it here.


Back to Nature

Three very different but equally intriguing books landed on my desk at the end of the summer. For three different age groups, they all demand that their readers sit up and notice what’s out the window. They may be dissimilar in their readership from each other, yet I’m grouping all three because they all share a common trait – they excite the mind about nature through their distinct illustrative styles.

lets go outside

Let’s Go Outside by Katja Spitzer
The smallest title in size, aimed at the smallest child, and designed especially to be held by the smallest hands. Although the publisher claims that this title aims to teach first words, I would add that it is useful as an inspirational tool for developing the eye – for reinforcing a toddler’s passion for ambling on a walk and looking around them, noticing things that an adult passes by with scarcely a glance. The book’s colours harp back to the 1970s with their intense vibrancy of oranges, browns, yellows and greens, and a quick flick shows that each page depicts a fairly simple word accompanied by a picture which illustrates it: flowers, insects, bird, butterfly, fruit and vegetables.

However, closer inspection – as a toddler would demand – gives a much more insightful view of what’s on display. The picture of the tree demonstrates use of pattern; the picture of the neighbour’s cat (an interesting choice – the cat belongs to someone else) shows a cat with attitude – proud and haughty – the illustrator managing this by showing the cat on tiptoes, body and head erect, eyes slightly staring up, whiskers sharp; the depiction of cherries is unexpected too – the girl is clearly eating one, although all that can be seen is the stalk poking out of her mouth. She is wearing cherries over her ears, and the buttons on her top could almost be mistaken for cherries too.

Each picture contains its own world. The positioning of the squirrel on the page following the girl on the swing suggests the same fluid motion – is swinging an exercise in being part of the landscape – soaring or leaping in the air like an animal? There is plenty to name, count and spy in the pages. The last few pages diverge off into showing seasons – a pumpkin follows leaves, which leads to a snowman – the last picture is of the garden in different seasons. You buy it here.


Another book that shows the changing seasons, is Tree by Britta Teckentrup and Patricia Hegarty. This was snatched from my hands by excited children the minute it arrived. The static picture of the tree, with its die cut hole through to a picture of an owl nesting inside, stays throughout almost the entire book, with further die cuts within showing bear cubs playing, squirrels scampering, birds and insects.

However, the change from the original template of the tree is startling on each page – the slow change through the seasons represented by the number of leaves, the shape of the tree, the animals frolicking beneath and the silence of winter, and most particularly the use of different colour palates on each page from the pale frosty greens and blues and greys and whites of winter to the slow snow melting of spring, with the introduction of browns and yellow and purple as the bluebells and crocuses appear.

Britta Teckentrup portrays the subtle changes with an expert use of colour, creating an almost sensual reaction to the page. The clever layering of the die cut reflects the layering of the leaves – the increase in die cuts, with more and more animals, is in tandem with the increase in foliage as the seasons turn to summer, and then the mass of leaves before they fall in autumn. Each page contains an array of detail to spy and talk through – spring contains squirrels and fox cubs as well as many different types of flowers, leaves, insects and birds, and a changing sky, with rain or sun. The blue skies of summer change to the fading yellow light of autumn.

There is a small amount of rhyming text at the bottom of each page to explain what’s happening, with language to reflect the illustrations – the “springtime breeze” reflected in the illustration of movement in the tree – forests “abloom with flowers” reflected in the colourful flowers amassing on the page. And then of course the year begins again… “Owl sees the first new buds appear, And so begins another year…”

A simple concept, expertly executed. Both stylistically beautiful and informative. An autumnal must for every young child. You can purchase it here.

the wonder garden

Lastly The Wonder Garden, illustrated by Kristjana S Williams, written by Jenny Broom, takes illustrated books for children to a new illustrative level, with a gold embossed cover reflecting the sumptuousness of the natural world in all its glory.

Exploring five lush habitats, including the Amazon rainforest, the Chihuahuan desert and the Great Barrier Reef, Williams uses layers of vibrant colours to explore each environment – it almost feels as if one is wearing 3D glasses when reading – there is much layering in the illustrations.

On closer inspection, the illustrations are not hand-drawn and old-fashioned as they first appear, but prepared digitally, which makes sense as some of the images are repeated in the same pose, and cast over one another to simulate the variety and layering of the landscapes. The detail is exquisite, capturing the textures and patterns of different animals and birds well, although of course they are not drawn scientifically accurately, but more as drawings to ‘wonder’ at.

But it is the colours that demand attention – splashes of neon pink and oranges lending the book a magical quality. Unfortunately the text doesn’t stand up to the same scrutiny; for those children who like animal non-fiction there is nothing new here – the creatures chosen are atypical of these books, with atypical facts – a poison dart frog, a hummingbird whose heart beats 100 times a minute, the green turtle, the golden eagle with its speeds of up to 320 km an hour. There is an immediacy to the text that I liked – the author talking to the reader as if you yourself were walking through the landscape, and describing the sounds of the animals, but also including the species’ Latin names. Sadly, there are one or two typos, which I hope are corrected for the next edition.

This is definitely an inspirational piece of non-fiction – a sumptuous looking gift for curious children, which I would recommend for its ability to motivate children to be inquisitive about the world around them and then go on to explore further for more in-depth information. Click here to see the Waterstones link.





A New Term, New Knowledge

the school of art

It’s apt that as we go back to school, my first blog of the new term is about a non-fiction book that is laid out in the style of a three term learning process – a school of art. Wide Eyed Publishing have published a unique teaching tool for young readers, which explores basic principles of art in a refreshingly clean, tidy and easy to understand way. The School of Art by Teal Triggs, illustrated by Daniel Frost, isn’t like previous art titles I’ve reviewed in which a child is shown how to draw an object or character line by line. It isn’t presented, as many children’s art books are, almost recipe style, in presenting a craft idea and showing step-by-step how to create it. This is very different. It aims to teach the tools behind the art so that a reader goes away completely equipped with a skillset, and most importantly, an understanding of art. And yet it still remains incredibly child-friendly.

At first glance, the title is rather staid, The School of Art, and the contents page almost academic and rather daunting. The first few pages introduce five imaginary professors, who are going to teach throughout the book, but the bulk of the book is split into three terms of learning – each double page spread, or in some cases individual pages, assigned a different lesson. The contents page is text heavy, as is the introduction. As first impressions go, this reviewer was reluctant to plough through the book.

Yet on closer inspection, perversely the detail serves the purpose of making the lessons simpler, like a Chagall painting that tells a narrative, the details of the individual sections pull together to give a wonderfully rich overarching story. The book aims to teach the principles of art, and does so deftly, clearly and without patronising. If there was ever an advert for the kind of teacher one should have, this is it. Far from ploughing through it, I was motivated throughout reading it and have learnt more about art from this book than any other – in a refreshingly simple way.

The five professors represent the five tenets of art – ideas, form, senses, making, and the planet or environment. They are introduced in a particularly child-friendly way, exploring their appearance, their studios, and their character traits. For example, the Professor of Form is illustrated intelligently by Daniel Frost as being composed almost of shapes – a triangular beard, rectangular legs, and with an unmistakeable symmetry. The Professor of Senses is partial to ice creams in pointy sugary cones and the Professor of the Planet’s studio is a greenhouse.

The lessons are strikingly simple and yet impart great knowledge, building from complete basics up through to technical applications, but always adding in activities, which are easy to do, and demonstrate the lessons magnificently. Although this is not a history of artists, names of famous artists are dropped in when their work helps to demonstrate a lesson – which all helps to build a rounded knowledge.


For example, one of my favourite sections in term one is about colour. The lessons stem from the colour wheel to making colours lighter and darker, to how they work in harmony, to contrast, and then fascinating lessons on seeing colours that aren’t there, when the same colour looks different, and when different colours look the same. Lesson 14 on seeing colours that aren’t there gives a stunningly simply activity – which works magnificently – creating an illusion called an ‘after-image’ by painting a circle with three wedges, red, green and blue – that meet in the middle. The reader is asked to take a long look at the centre, and then look to a white sheet of paper. Which colours do you then see?

All the activities that I tried were simple and worked, proving their lesson. The book instructs how art encompasses maths and science, and talks about using art to be useful as well as aesthetic. The illustrations are both informative and witty. The text is far from dry – it is light and entertaining. There’s a glossary of terms at the back, and space to add the reader’s artwork to the final exhibition. Once I started this book, it was utterly compelling.

Recommended for all children interested in art from age nine upwards, as well as to all teachers, and educators as a brilliant tool for demonstrating basic art principles in the classroom. The author and illustrator have dedicated the book to all art and design students everywhere. I would say for those students, it is essential reading, but the author has drawn attention to the fact that the book aims to show the ways in which art can make a difference in people’s lives – adding that it doesn’t matter what age you are for that to be relevant. I would agree – I will be loath to relinquish this book – it’s a surprising masterpiece.


It is worth noting that the author is a Professor at the Royal College of Art. I was kindly provided a copy of this book for review from the publishers as part of a mumsnet review panel. To buy a copy of this book from Waterstones, please click here.