picturebooks

For Holocaust Memorial Day

“To forget the dead would be akin to killing them a second time.” Elie Wiesel

Teaching children about traumatic events in our collective history can be difficult, and when picking a book on the subject it’s more important than ever to judge content more than appearance. There is fierce debate on how old children should be before they are taught about the Holocaust or other genocides. Teaching the historical context of the Nazis, of death and what’s morally right and wrong can all be taught much earlier, but it’s hard to teach the meaning and mechanics of mass murder before secondary school. Even some adults have a hard time grasping the enormity of it. The national curriculum dictates that the Holocaust should be taught in key stage 3 – Year 7, 8 or 9, which is the first three years of secondary school (ages 11-14).

“Fiction cannot recite the numbing numbers, but it can be that witness, that memory” – Jane Yolen

Firstly, I’ve chosen three works of fiction. They are all picture books, but that doesn’t mean they’re for small children – in fact they are best for age 10+ yrs. I’ve chosen them for their exploration of the Holocaust from different viewpoints, and as starting points for serious discussion about the Holocaust. None of them should be read in isolation, but rather explored after an initial insight into what did happen to the Jewish people during the Second World War.

Benno and the Night of Broken Glass

Benno and the Night of Broken Glass by Meg Wiviott, illustrated by Josee Bisaillon
This is a cat’s eye view of Kristallnacht. Benno is the neighbourhood cat, who visits Sophie on Shabbat, and is fed schnitzel by the Schmidts after church, and gets titbits from the kosher butcher. All is seemingly well. Then gradually Benno realises that there are fewer scraps, and the neighbourhood people are growing ever more impatient, and that there are now new black boots stomping along the pavement. Then Kristallnacht happens, Benno’s paws are sore from the broken glass on the pavement, and Benno doesn’t see Sophie and her family any more, nor Professor Goldfarb. It’s a simplistic animal tale of a neighbourhood changing, but the masked horror of the Holocaust pervades the story. The implied disappearance of the Jewish people of the neighbourhood leaves it up to the reader to imagine what may have prevailed that night. The Afterword explains Kristallnacht in a little more detail, telling what that night was about and what did happen to the Jews in Germany. However, the last paragraph is a little emotive, which is a shame for a page that should remain factual. However, it is a clever introduction to the build-up of the Holocaust in Germany.

Star of Fear

Star of Fear, Star of Hope by Jo Hoestlandt, illustrated by Johanna Kang
Another simplistic story, which belies the terror underneath, is Star of Fear, which tells the narrative from an old lady’s point of view – looking back on those things that she couldn’t comprehend as a little girl. Helen remembers growing up in France after the German invasion of 1942. She remembers her childhood friend Lydia, and the yellow star Lydia was forced to wear on her clothes. It’s a story about friendship, and how little girls can say things to their friends that they don’t mean – and ultimately live to regret. Helen regrets more than most, as in a spontaneous angry outburst she tells Lydia that they are no longer friends, little knowing it was the last time she would ever see her…it is supposed that Lydia was taken away by the Nazis the next day. The simplicity of the text and pictures adds to the poignancy.

whispering town

The Whispering Town by Jennifer Elvgren, illustrated by Fabio Santomauro
Published last year, The Whispering Town tells the story of the Danish Jews through the eyes of a little girl. The Danish story itself is quite remarkable. As a nation Denmark actively resisted the Nazis’ plan to round up the Jewish people, and managed to smuggle a huge percentage of their Jewish population to safety in Sweden. They relied upon the goodness of their people, and The Whispering Town shows how the shopkeepers and neighbours all helped the hidden Jews in one cellar in Gilleleje to escape by boat from the harbour. The illustrations depict the Nazis as menacing, gun-wielding soldiers and the Danish people with simpatico faces. Cleverly, the Jews hiding in the cellar are simply white pen lines on black – a shadow almost. The colours throughout are muted – pale greens, much black and grey – other than the stark red of the Nazi symbol on the soldiers’ shirtsleeves. This may be a story of hope and salvation, but the events happened in a terrible time. My feeling is that it’s important to teach children that there is hope despite the horror of six million Jews and many other people losing their lives during the Holocaust. It is vital that children understand there are pockets of goodness and humanity. If a whole nation can rise up against the Nazis, then it is possible for goodness to overcome. This link describes the Danish efforts well.

usborne holocaust

After a wealth of discussion of story, it is worth consulting some reference too. One such title that sets things out clearly and easily for children is Usborne: The Holocaust. In a matter-of-fact tone, but with excellently precise vocabulary, Susanna Davidson sets out the narrative of the Holocaust, encompassing the roots of anti-Semitism, the Nazi definition of whom they defined as being Jewish, the treatment of other minority groups, the advancement of Germany through Europe, the increasingly harsh treatment of Jews and minorities, before going on to address ghettos, and the final solution. It also covers small acts of defiance in the face of certain death, both from Jews and non-Jews, which is really important. It’s simple to understand, crams a mass of information into short digestible chunks, and does its very best to explain a seemingly inexplicable event. Despite its conciseness, the book does contain graphic information on the killing of Jews, including shooting at mass graves and the death camps. It also quotes people from the time, and includes graphic images, including the painting ‘Gassing’ by Auschwitz survivor David Olere. There are many photographs too, including those of a survivor at the liberation of Belsen. Be warned, this is not a book for young children, but would do well to accompany those studying the Holocaust at Key Stage 3. The afterword throws up some questions that children may ask afterwards, and doesn’t try to answer them, but instead finishes on the note that the Holocaust is not something that should ever be forgotten.

DK Holocaust

I’ve not included a comprehensive review of DK Holocaust, a title that I worked on myself, as sadly, it appears to be unavailable at most good bookstores. However, if you can get a copy it’s an all-encompassing examination of the Holocaust for older children, which I worked on with the superb writer Angela Gluck Wood. I can self-promote shamelessly as I receive no royalties.

Holocaust Memorial Day is on January 27th.

 Usborne Holocaust was very kindly sent to me by Usborne Publishing

Libraries: Here Today, Gone Tomorrow?

My local council is proposing to close my public library. I’m not alone – this is happening all over the country. My blog isn’t political though, so I’m not going to explore our campaign, although if you’re interested please go to the links at the end.

According to the National Literacy Trust a child who visits a library is twice as likely to be a fluent reader as one who does not. There is a flush of excitement on the faces of the children who come into my library for library club. They are keen to read, to push open the doorway to their imaginations, to discover mindblowing facts and to share them with me. We learn new words, read incredible stories, laugh at jokes, and gasp at information. This week in the library we discussed the word ‘shone’, we giggled that mice park their boats at the hickory dickory dock, we discovered that you can have a trip to the moon, a pet monster, pirates and a genie’s lamp all in one story (Monstar Marks a Wish by Steve Cole, illustrated by Pete Williamson), and we learned that the study of clocks is called horology.

The author SF Said says that libraries are cathedrals of books, temples of information. My library constantly surprises me. It’s a treasure trove of inspiration and creativity.

My favourite books celebrating libraries are as follows:

Homer the library cat

Homer, the Library Cat by Reeve Lindbergh, illustrated by Anne Wilsdorf
A delightful rhyming book that explores the sense of peace that can be obtained in a public library space. Homer the cat is spooked by a loud bang from the bins and rushes off to find his owner, ‘the quiet lady’. He finds noise everywhere throughout the town, until he reaches a beautiful building, within which he can hear his ‘quiet lady’ and some children. The library in this book clearly has no budget shortage – a large building with marble floors, and a dedicated librarian for storytime. Homer soon discovers the joy of the library – the comfort of the storyteller’s chair, the colourful books, the playful children, the quiet of storytime and snacks:
“The boys and girls loved Homer.
Homer loved them back.
He slept right through the stories
but woke up for the snack.”

Otto the Book Bear

Otto the Book Bear by Katie Cleminson
Otto is a bear, but like Homer the cat, also on the prowl for a place of refuge, acceptance and books. Otto the Bear lives within a storybook, and is happiest when the children are reading his book, but he also comes to life when they’re asleep. Sadly, one day the children move away and Otto is left behind. The story follows his adventures as he struggles to find a safe, welcoming sanctuary. He finally discovers a “place that looked full of light and hope.” Of course, it’s a library, and Otto discovers books, other book creatures like himself, and of course many many readers. Simply told and illustrated, this is a heartwarming story to introduce the youngest audience to a love of books.

library lion

Library Lion by Michelle Knudsen, illustrated by Kevin Hawkes
This exquisite, slightly longer picture book, pitched at an older age group, features a library’s set of rules: no running, quiet at all times etc. One day a lion appears in the library, but he doesn’t break the rules and he appears to want to help the librarian, and so he becomes a regular fixture, helping small children to reach books, providing a back rest during storytime.

library lion inside3library lion inside2

Until, the day when he does break the rules of the library, and not able to overcome his own shame, he leaves. The librarian and the people in the library are distraught – he broke the rules for good reason, and so in the end he is sought, found and welcomed back. The soft images are suffused with light, warmth and pathos – this is a stellar example of library envy – you almost feel you want to jump into the book. There is also a distinct cleverness in this book – for although a picture book – the portrayal of the librarian is so strong, that you really feel you know Miss Merriweather’s character by the end of the book.

the librarian of basra

The Librarian of Basra by Jeanette Winter
Another lady librarian, this is a careful depiction of the true story of Alia Muhammad Baker, a remarkable woman who did all she could to save the wonderful books in her library from destruction as bombs rained around her in Basra, Iraq. In fact she saved 70 per cent of the books in her library, at considerable danger to herself. This is a great story for children aged 6 and over to explore the impact of war, to discover that one should stand up for one’s beliefs, and have courage in the face of danger. Ultimately, it speaks to everyone about the power and importance of books, and preserving culture and history. It tells the story incredibly simply, leaving out lots of details, but the scarcity of words adds to the atmosphere and lends itself to being read by children – the true circumstances of the war would be too cumbersome at this age. Illustrated with bright bold acrylics, it also gives children a sense of a culture from a different part of the world. There is an author’s note at the end to give background information.

photo posted on post-gazette.com

It’s a shame that so many booklovers and librarians nationwide have to now battle with their councils to keep public libraries open. I’ll leave Neil Gaiman to have the last word on libraries:

“If you do not value libraries then you do not value information or culture or wisdom. You are silencing the voices of the past and you are damaging the future.”

2014 Seighart Report on Public Libraries

Save Barnet Libraries information

Save Barnet Libraries petition

Reading Aloud: the key to nurturing passionate readers

Do you read aloud to your children? The recent Scholastic Kids and Family Reading Report, Jan 2015, suggests that reading aloud to your children all the way through primary school, well beyond when they become an independent reader, has a link to their general love of reading. For 41% of children who are ‘frequent readers’, the critical factor is that their parents kept reading aloud to them after the age of six.

What do I mean by frequent readers? I mean those who read for fun five to seven days a week, infrequent readers only read for fun less than one day a week. Frequent reading makes a real difference. “Enjoyment of reading has a greater impact on a child’s educational achievement than their parents’ socio-economic status” OECD Reading For Change, 2002, 2009. “Children who read for pleasure make more progress in maths, vocabulary and spelling between the ages of 10-16 than those who rarely read.” Institute of Education, 2013.

In fact parental involvement in reading is one of the biggest factors in determining if your child will be a lifelong reader. If you read aloud to them frequently before they started school, they are 60 per cent more likely to be frequent readers, and this will continue if you have books at home, make frequent trips to the library, discuss books they are reading, and are seen to be reading yourself.

What may surprise you is that generally we’re not reading aloud to them. The Scholastic report tells us that 52 per cent of children aged 0-2 yrs are read aloud to 5-7 days a week, and 55 per cent aged 3-5 yrs, but only 34 per cent aged 6-8 yrs and 17 per cent aged 9-11 yrs. And yet across all age groups, 83 per cent of kids say they loved or “liked a lot” those times when parents read to them aloud at home.

But they love reading independently

Reading independently is terrific, but the data implies that reading aloud encourages reading independently. It is also a simple way to push your child ahead. Parents invest in tutors, music lessons, day trips – spending time reading to them likely has an equal or bigger impact. Not only will they get something out of it, but so will you. It’s a phenomenal bonding time – children aged 6-11 yrs pointed to this being a huge factor in why they enjoyed being read to. In an age of disconnect, with fewer shared family meals, and more time spent alone on electronic devices, reading to your child is a great way of communicating. Of course, it takes time to read regularly with your children but the rewards are worth it, so it’s all about prioritising.

For those children who are excellent independent readers already, it’s a perfect opportunity to introduce texts that they might not reach for themselves – fiction for avid independent non-fiction readers, or more complex texts where you can explain the nuances of the plot and define the stretching vocabulary, especially for those stuck on ‘series’ books. You can discover the new books published for children that you couldn’t read when you were a child, or rediscover the classics you did read as a child.

Here are a few great texts to read aloud to the different age groups.

Nora Nora inside Nora inside cake

Nora, the girl who ate and ate and ate by Andrew Weale, illustrated by Ben Cort, is a treat to read-aloud. A book that rhymes screams to be read aloud, and children adore guessing following words once they pick up on the rhythm and rhyme. There are some special words that ‘Boom’ out the page, and of course, it makes children laugh – a key strategy in encouraging children to love books. I can never make it through to the end without children giving me the two punchlines in the book, one…
“They all went down in one huge SLURP!
Then Nora did a great big…”
If my three year old guessed what came next – I’m sure you can…I won’t give away the final punchline, but suffice to say, it’s a winner too. The energy just bounces off the pages – resonated by the author and illustrator, whom I had the pleasure to meet at the Southbank Children’s Book Festival a couple of years ago.

wheres my teddymister magnolia

Two other beautifully funny and clever rhyming books for very young children are the much loved Where’s My Teddy by Jez Alborough – which manages to conjure the dark and frightening while still being loved by small children everywhere – and Mr Magnolia by Quentin Blake, serving up the most delicious rhymes and images. We still can’t talk about boots without invoking Mr Magnolia.

momo and snap

There are other stories that were written to be vocalised. Momo and Snap are NOT friends by Airlie Anderson has no words. Simple sounds and grunts illustrate the story of a crocodile and a monkey making friends.

the book with no pictures

Of course the most recent addition to the canon of ‘must be read loud books’ is The Book With No Pictures by B. J. Novak. It does exactly what it says on the cover – there are no pictures in this book, and the joy only comes by reading aloud. The fun that can be had by doing different voices and playing with words and language in the simplest form is exemplified by the author’s video of him reading his book to a class of kids. Here’s the video.

Enormous CrocodileEnormous Crocodile inside

My favourite Roald Dahl book to read aloud for the 5+ yrs audience is The Enormous Crocodile. (I would encourage you to buy or borrow the colour illustrated version). I think even the shyest reader can manage to inject some menace into the Enormous Crocodile’s dialogue, and there’s a special delight to be had from reading the tremendous vocabulary out loud:
“’Oh you horrid hoggish croc!” cried Muggle-Wump. “You slimy creature! I hope the buttons and buckles all stick in your throat and choke you to death!”’

Once children start reading independently most will visit Enid Blyton. I wouldn’t personally read aloud all her books (!), but it’s nice to read the first in a series, then you can explain words such as ‘sanitorium’, which today’s children may not understand.

Inkheart

The great stories and tremendous subtleties in some older children’s literature can be enjoyed equally by parents and children (eg. Harry Potter, Narnia stories). Inkheart by Cornelia Funke manages to convey beautifully the ‘wise adult’ narrator, and the ability of the author to empathise with childhood feelings within one phrase:
“Sometimes, when you’re so sad you don’t know what to do, it helps to be angry.”

Revisiting the classics with your child at this age is truly rewarding. Many of the titles are fairly inaccessible to a young independent reader due to the old fashioned vocabulary and references, but together they can be digested more easily, examples include Black Beauty, Heidi, The Railway Children. You can read my blog on classics here. Be wary though, some read alouds can result in adults’ tears; I found it very hard to stumble to the end of Charlotte’s Web as I was crying too much!

Goodnight Mr Tom

A more difficult book is Goodnight Mister Tom by Michelle Magorian. I wholly recommend this as a read aloud text. Whilst many children from age ten should be able to cope well with this book, the issues thrown up deserve some time and discussion. Issues of grief, parental responsibility, displacement and suchlike, need exploring, and it can be hard for children to give voice to the emotions raised by the book. Reading aloud enables the parent to see the child’s reaction at each stage and probe for feelings as you go along. Of course, not every book can be read aloud, but there are arguments for fluent readers to be read to with more difficult texts as they start reading on their own, so that they can see books can be discussed and issues that come up can be raised with their parents. Even some young adult titles deserve reading aloud so that the concepts within can be fully raked over. Examples for me would include Nothing by Janne Teller, Bloodtide by Melvin Burgess, and The Bunker Diary by Kevin Brooks.

Nothing

 

For reference:

Scholastic report
New York Times Article

I am Henry Finch by Alexis Deacon, illustrated by Viviane Schwarz

I am Henry Finch

Being a big fan of Alexis Deacon, ever since Beegu, I was delighted to discover that I am Henry Finch also provokes much debate and thought. It is great when picture books tell a good story, but there’s an added bonus when a picture book punches above its genre and reaches older children through concept and design. I Am Henry Finch tells the story of a flock of finches with a shared look, sound and identity. Then one finch has a revelation, not unlike the French philosopher Descartes, ‘cogito ergo sum’, or in this case:
“I am Henry Finch, he thought.
I think, he thought.”
The realisation that he can have his own separate thoughts gives him the freedom to have his own identity, and ambitions, and to take his own separate course of action. His aspirations to greatness lead to adventure and enable him to overcome adversity (depicted here by the beast) and finally to enlighten his fellow finches on the gift of free thought and freedom. By the end each one of the finches has its own separate ambition, from travelling the world to falling in love. Not only is the story liberating, but the genius is pairing it with Viviane Schwarz’s illustrations. She uses red fingerprints (apparently gathering them from her friends) to depict the finches, and has added wings and faces with simple black strokes. The cartoon-like faces lighten the tone, and the fingerprints give the book a dynamic distinct identity of its own.

I am Henry Finch inside

Is My Child Old Enough?

Harry Potter Goblet of Fire  Anne Frank

So here is one of the most startling problems with helping children pick something to read. Age-appropriateness. The question comes up time and time again from adults: “My eight year old child loves Harry Potter, but we’ve got to book three, and I think they get darker after that – should I continue or wait till she’s older”, and “How old should my child be to read Anne Frank?” etc.

Even when you go to a good bookshop, it’s not like clothes where they’re shelved by size – books are only very roughly broken down into categories by publishers, and even then there’s huge overlap and vagueness, and some books don’t sit properly in their ‘marketplace’ at all. You’ll quite often see labels (even on my site), such as picture books, early readers, middle grade, young adult. What do these mean?

Picture books are what they say on the tin! Ie. They’re books with pictures on every page – almost always a larger size than your standard book, and mainly for a young age group. I say mainly because in the breadth and depth of the picture book world, the age range is huge. Many will read The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle to their children from birth, but The Arrival by Shaun Tan is best aimed at those aged eight and over. For The Sunday Times this was a picture book, in Publishers Weekly it was a graphic novel. In most bookshops I’ve seen it in the picture book section. The Arrival is a stunning book about having a sense of belonging, and explores issues of migration and displacement and refugees, but it’s not for pre-schoolers. Saying that, neither is The Promise by Nicola Davies (a book I hope to review on this blog shortly).

Early readers are those first titles that a child can start to read independently once they gain literacy fluency. However, even then the age at which they reach this point can vary hugely. Middle grade is roughly defined by the publishing industry as books aimed at readers aged 8-12 yrs with a protagonist of 10-13 yrs and a focus on friends, family and the immediate world. Young adult is generally perceived as being for readers aged 13-18 yrs, with older protagonists (14-18 yrs) who spend more time than the MG protagonists thinking and reflecting on what is happening and the meanings of things. These books may also contain romance, sex, profanity and violence. There is often some blurriness in the top end of MG and the bottom end of YA, and a huge debate over when young adult becomes part of the ‘grown up’ canon of literature.

Fastest Boy in the WorldFastest Boy in the World back

Some publishers started putting age labels on the back cover of their books to assist purchasing, and still do. My copy of The Fastest Boy in the World by Elizabeth Laird says 7+ on the back, which I do pretty much agree with. Although, again it depends on the individual child! In 2008 the Publishers’ Association found that 86 per cent of adults support labelling books like this, and staggeringly 40 per cent said they would buy more books if they had age labels! (Again, this points to people buying more books if only they knew which ones to buy!)

This became a hugely contentious issue. Doesn’t labelling a book as aimed at a certain age group limit it commercially, or in a perverse way just make it more attractive to those younger children for whom it isn’t intended? As I child I always wanted to watch films that were certified with a 15 certificate when I was under the age limit. We are drawn to the prohibited. It also makes the books less attractive to those older than the age label. And soul destroying to those who struggle with reading. A publisher such as Barrington Stoke allows you to search their website by reading age ability but also by content age, separating out the two. An interesting idea, and helpful to struggling readers.

And then there’s the school reading schemes – Cecelia Busby drew attention to the Accelerated Reading scheme on An Awfully Big Blog Adventure blogspot. The Accelerated Reader schemes labels books by ‘reading levels’, but it’s not done by a human, but by a computer – which then becomes a vocabulary and syntax exercise prone to error (in my mind anyway, as it deemed that a Daisy Meadows Rainbow Fairy title was more difficult to read than Alan Garner’s The Owl Service).

It’s the same argument that I’ve pointed to again and again. If you use a computer to give you reading choices, rather than a person – you’re going to be using an algorithm which, no matter how enlightened, has not actually read the books. Because what it boils down to is content. It’s all very well that an eight year old is a proficient reader, but just because they can read Forever by Judy Blume doesn’t mean they should.

Many parents believe that The Diary of Anne Frank, studied by many in Year 6 at school, needs to be read with an understanding of the context in which it’s set (the Holocaust). Of course you do, but there’s also plenty in the book about growing sexuality too – don’t forget Anne was 13 when she was given her diary and then went into hiding and wrote the diary for the next couple of years while she became aware of her own body. She writes extensively about exploring her vagina:
“There are little folds of skin all over the place, you can hardly find it. The little hole underneath is so terribly small that I simply can’t imagine how a man can get in there, let alone how a whole baby can get out!”
It’s nothing revolutionary, and quite understandable for a 14 year old, but not something I personally want my nine year old reading just yet. I think they will simply appreciate it more when they too are approaching or going through puberty.

In fact, this leads me to one excellent way of judging a book’s suitability, which is the age of the protagonist. Most children want a protagonist with whom they can identify or in many cases, wish to be like. A protagonist the same age or a year or two older is about right. Harry Potter starts his sequence of books aged 11 and each year progresses through school, ending at aged 18, and I would suggest that children would get more out of the books if they read them at roughly the same ages. Many children aged seven do start reading Harry Potter, and if they can cope with the dark content of the later books, many read all the way through, but I would argue (contentiously I know), that reading them a little later would make for a better understanding and appreciation of the book. It’s simply a life stage – I know I read Madame Bovary totally differently at the tender of 18 yrs and single as to how I read it in my thirties, several years after having got married. It’s all about point of view.

Some believe that children will automatically self-censor – ie. if they read a book with content that’s too advanced for them, they won’t enjoy it and will stop reading. Author Patrick Ness doesn’t think age labels work:
“I don’t think it works, if it’s got an 18 certificate then younger children will look at it when their parents aren’t around … children are great self­-censors: they know what they can read and they know what they want to read.”
My argument with that is that it can put a child off a book forever, as they feel they already attempted it and it was dull – and then never return. If they have dismissed a book at the wrong age by misunderstanding the nuances and underlying content, they may never go back to it. My absolute horror would be to give my children Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights trilogy at too early an age, so that they turn round and tell me it’s ‘dull’. So, I’m not suggesting censoring, just reaching out for the full breadth of children’s books that are available for your child at any given age, and not pushing them to read ‘higher’ up the literacy level until they are ready and willing, and you are somewhat aware of the content.

It’s impossible to read every book before your child, so there is no easy solution. You can talk to someone like me of course, although even I haven’t read all the books in the world! You can read about the book and do some research, and accept that at some point you will be caught out. When my daughter was six she was a proficient reader and was given a library book by an innocent librarian – it was only when my daughter asked me what ‘snogging’ was that I realised the content was inappropriate. My advice: don’t rely on a computer, do talk to as many people as possible about your book choices, don’t push your child onto the next ‘level in the hope of advanced literacy skills’ – there is plenty of amazing content out there for your child – and do take the more advanced books and read them aloud to your child so you can discuss issues when they arise.

 

 

 

Penguin or Owl?

So first there was snow – and then there were penguins. I’m not sure when penguins became synonymous with Christmas, but this year they certainly have – from the John Lewis advert to the Penguins of Madagascar, Penguins have arrived in London in time for Christmas.

owl or penguin
When I was little I had a small soft toy called Owly. It was loved and cherished (see its somewhat battered state now), but it was only recently that someone pointed out that maybe it’s a penguin. So I thought – that’s a great premise for a book – the penguin with the mistaken identity. In the meantime, here are some books that have already been written:

Penguin Polly DunbarPouting Boy
Penguin by Polly Dunbar
My overall abiding love for this book is one illustration that depicts a facial expression, in which a close member of my family is THE expert. Penguin tells the story of a boy called Ben who receives a penguin as a present, but the penguin will not communicate with him, no matter what Ben does. Finally Ben is eaten by a lion, the penguin saves him, and the penguin suddenly has a great deal to say. The book is packed with witty illustrations, a zany storyline and a winning outcome. An old favourite. Penguins are often used as a way to explore and develop friendships in picture books – I wonder if that’s because they are often depicted huddling together? Two perfect examples of penguin friends are Fluff and Billy Do Everything Together by Nicola Killen and Lost and Found by Oliver Jeffers.

Fluff and BillyLost and Found
Fluff and Billy tells the tale of when play between friends gets rough leading to hurt and falling out – before there is forgiveness and friendship again. It works well to read aloud to a small child because the book is littered with repetition. Lost and Found by Oliver Jeffers is fast becoming a children’s classic. The book tells the story of a boy who opens the door one day to see a penguin standing on his doorstep. He spends much of the book grappling with what to do with the penguin – until realising at the end that the penguin just wants a friend. Jeffers’ illustrations are beguilingly simple – less is more in fact. Jeffers said that the illustrations are deliberately simple so that children, wherever they are, can fill in the gaps with their own individual landscapes. Characters too – the penguin is a few simple lines – it almost seems as if the characters of the boy and the penguin are more expressive the less detail they have. Jeffers’ text also shines with a simple clarity – basic plotlines mixed with truisms and pathos:
“He ran down to the harbour and asked a big ship to take them to the South Pole. But his voice was much too small to be heard over the ship’s horn.”
So much expressed so simply – the vastness of the ship and the world as compared to a small boy asking for help.

Blown Away
The new addition to the ‘penguin’ canon of literature, and published in August of this year is Blown Away by Rob Biddulph. I implore you to find and read a copy. Rob Biddulph’s blue penguin may be more ‘Hampstead Heath’ inspired than normal Antarctic penguins, but, like Jeffers, his penguin is simply drawn – Biddulph too remarking that children can put their own emotions into the animals, so simple black dots for eyes work best. With rhyming text, Biddulph explores what happens when Blue the penguin gets blown away on his kite, picking up cargo along the way, and finally setting down onto a jungle island. But does he want to stay?
“’How nice,” says Blue,
A lovely spot,
Although it is
a bit too hot.”
The beauty of this book lies in the small details. Every page is lovingly created so that your eyes pick up the story and the animals’ emotions almost by osmosis – the rhyming text is lovely to read aloud, but the extra touches on the illustrations won me over. A charming Christmas present that’s not just for Christmas!

Dragon Loves Penguin
My last picture book is Dragon Loves Penguin by Debi Gliori, shortlisted for the 2015 Red House Children’s Book Awards. I coordinate the testing in my area for this award, so know very well how popular this book has proved with young children. It celebrates diversity, and is even relevant for those attempting to explain adoption to the very young – in essence it’s about mother’s love. When an egg is abandoned, a dragon without its own egg adopts it, but when it hatches it’s a penguin! Despite the differences, the mother dragon loves the penguin as her own, and the love makes the little penguin brave enough to see off her dragon peers who can’t accept her differences, and also to escape an erupting volcano. Yes, this little picture book is packed full of action – and has adorable illustrations – rarely has a penguin chick looked quite so cute.

The Penguin Who Wanted to Find Out
For slightly older readers, in the Jill Tomlinson series of animal books is The Penguin Who Wanted to Find Out. Beautifully told so that the reader learns about penguins at the same time as digesting the story. Jill Tomlinson’s strength is her ability to weave fiction and non-fiction seamlessly here, with some magical lines:
“The trouble was, not all adults were good at answering questions, or would try.”

The Emperors EggUsborne Beginners Penguin
For those children who want to find out even more, and for adults who can’t tell the difference between an owl and a penguin here are two great non-fiction titles for early learners.The Emperor’s Egg by Martin Jenkins, illustrated by Jane Chapman, is part of the Nature Storybooks series – telling the story of the Emperor penguins. It’s an excellent starting point for a young child wishing to find out more information. It’s not patronising, but is written as if the child is having a conversation with the writer about penguins. Asking questions of the young reader, particularly ones that make them think, is a lovely way to write a non-fiction book. No wonder this won the TES Junior Information Book Award. The Usborne Beginners series has a book on penguins; I like this series for their gentle introduction to non-fiction. Helpfully containing a glossary and an index, and with short chunks of text throughout for easily digestible facts. It also covers many different types of penguins. Usborne have also had their facts checked by experts in the field, which sadly, is not true of all children’s non-fiction in the marketplace.

The More It Snows…

Snow Eastman
This December it’s not quite cold enough for snow, and set to get warmer by the day in London this week. However, for me, the magic of Christmas is still tied to a snowy landscape. There is something special about snow. No other weather creates such a magical environment for a young child. In recent years in London we’ve had on average one ‘snow day’ a year, in which the schools close and it’s free play outside all day. One book from my childhood readily sums up the delight of this day, Snow by Roy McKie and P.D. Eastman. Published in the US as part of the Dr Seuss beginners’ series to learn to read, the basic text and smile-inducing illustrations capture the excitement in a nutshell.

Snow inside Eastman
Tobogganing, skiing, snow angels, snow ball fights, snowman building, igloo building, and of course the ultimate melting are all covered. The verses are simple yet so effective:
“Snow is good
For making tracks…
And making pictures
With your backs.”

Snow is my favourite
More recent offerings also manage to convey the happiness of a snow day, and the inevitable melting. Snow is My Favourite and My Best by Lauren Child in the Charlie and Lola book series manages to express the impatience of a child in wanting to go and play immediately before it all goes away. The tradition of my children having hot chocolate after coming in from a snow day was heavily influenced by this book! There are some important lessons here though, encouraging children to think about how to make something special. Is snow so special because it doesn’t happen every day? Both of these manage to convey the fleetingness of snow.

snow by sam usher

My new favourite is Snow by Sam Usher. From the front cover, it’s already apparent that Sam can conjure an atmosphere with a few simple pen lines. In no other picture book is the tempting flat whiteness of unspoilt snow so cleverly drawn. That impatience to go out, seen earlier in Charlie and Lola, is beautifully manifested in the slapdash hurry to get dressed, brush teeth and tie shoes…all commonly hurried activities in the impatient young. Then a breathtaking spread of pure white in front of the reader, as the snow is in front of the child. However, the book doesn’t let us leap into the snow, because, like the boy in the story we have to wait for his grandpa to be ready and take him – and then when they finally go, after the agony of watching everyone and everything else trample the fresh snow – there’s a great surprise in store. Set to be a children’s classic – I can’t wait for Sam’s next book.

Snow Bears1snow bears inside

From new to old – Snow Bears by Martin Waddell is a simple tale of a mother bear who pretends not to know where her baby bears are because they are all covered in snow and so look different. They play games in the snow, until the little one says its cold and they all go home. For me it’s the page where they return home to eat their toast that really makes me want to hug this book! Sarah Fox Davies’ illustration of the bears illuminated in the warm glow spilling out from the wooden hut sums up that wonderful feeling you only get by going into the warmth after getting cold and wet and breathless in snowy activities. The new pop up version was published in September this year.

Snow Day

Snow Day by Richard Curtis is another addition to the snow canon of picture books. I was very excited about this as it is illustrated by Rebecca Cobb, one of my favourite stars in the world of children’s illustration. The pictures certainly didn’t let me down, especially the army of snowmen, and the empty classroom. The premise is that there is a ‘snow day’ but the worst schoolboy and the strictest teacher don’t get the message (despite the emails and phone calls) and turn up to school.  What could be a miserable day turns into a day of lessons in the snow, and by the end they seem to be good friends. This is definitely a picture book for slightly older children, the length of the book and references to structured lessons ensure this.

Snow Walter de la Mare

My last new book for this Christmas with snowy landscapes is Snow by Walter de la Mare, illustrated by Carolina Rabei. This is a beautiful picture book – the illustrations create a nostalgia for Christmases in peaceful sleepy snowy villages, with happy excited children and a natural landscape of trees and robin red-breasts with no cars or modern city references to spoil the footprints in the snow.
inside snow walter de la mare
The colour adds to the picture perfectness of the book – muted browns and beiges, with splashes of true red for hats and curtains and presents, which bring to life the characters within. The picture of Father Christmas on his sleigh speeding through the swirling snow against a black backdrop sky is truly stunning. However, I can’t help but think that the wonder of the illustrations detracts from the beauty of the poetic words themselves – reading it in isolation conjures more of the magic than read piecemeal sentence by sentence across a book, but if it brings the magic of a great poet into the lives of children I can’t quibble.

Little Honey Bear and the Smiley Moon1

One final mention for a book that is not strictly about snow, but contains a story in a snowy landscape. If you want a bit of glitter on your snow, this is the one for you. (tip: read under electric light). Little Honey Bear and the Smiley Moon by Gillian Lobel, illustrated by Tim Warnes is a common enough tale of friendship – Little Honey Bear sets out to reach the moon with two of his friends, gets lost in the dark, and is finally found by Mummy Bear. However, I love this book for the liberal use of glitter to highlight the illustrations on each page – it brings the magic home for Christmas.

Little Honey Bear and the Smiley Moon

Seen and Not Heard by Katie May Green

Seen and Not Heard2

Purportedly inspired by looking at portraits hanging in galleries, Katie May Green’s stunning picture book contains some of the most ‘alive’ illustrations I have seen in a while. It tells the story of the children of Shiverhawk Hall who climb out of their portraits at night and run riot in the huge house. The mischievousness of the children builds throughout the book, from their slow descent from their picture frames, and climaxing with their pillow fight in the bedroom. Each illustration is worth looking at for quite some time to pick up all the detail and nuance within, our favourite definitely being the children running down the wood-panelled corridor. The look in the children’s eyes throughout the book is quite priceless. The small children with whom I read the book found the language a little difficult and so I’m suggesting that this is a picture book aimed at slightly older children (5+). However, the language matches the imagery; the rhythm reflects the children’s race around the house, and ends with the delightful quiet of them back in their picture frames:
“They stay still and sweet and good,
just like children should.”
An exquisite book to treasure, and one which would make a beautiful gift this Christmas.

Seen and Not Heard

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!