Tag Archive for Snicket Lemony

American Big Hitters

Two picture books that snuck into the publishing schedule last year, but which have recently come to my attention are both by big hitting American authors, who both dabble in the children’s book market, as well as writing adult fiction. Here, their individual writing styles shine in two profoundly different takes on the picture book and what it can do.

the bad mood and the stick
The Bad Mood and the Big Stick by Lemony Snicket, illustrated by Matt Forsythe
There’s nothing new in the idea of a child in a bad mood who passes it on (see my 2015 blog here), but Lemony Snicket is a master at putting his own spin on a premise, especially adding a tongue-in-cheek quirk. What’s more, the illustrations are sensational – from the cover onwards. The little girl on the cover, holding her stick, looks so mad and grumpy, one really feels as if she might wield it at the reader. But it’s the grumpy cloud above her (with matching facial expression) that appeals to the reader too – like the grey cloud above Eeyore, this one looks hard to shift.

Curly is the grumpy girl, and she has her reasons. The bad mood has been with her since she saw an ice cream shop, but was not given an ice cream. The reader sees her with her arms crossed, the bad mood hovering above, and her mother and brother strolling happily ahead. Of course, within pages, Curly has passed the bad mood to her mother (Yes, you’ve guessed it, she poked her brother with the stick, giving her momentary delight and causing her parent stress). The book continues as the bad mood passes from person to person.

Except that’s not the whole story. Snicket uses the catchphrase ‘You never know what is going to happen’, as the book veers off into completely different territory – with the stick as a catalyst, and one particular person breaking the bad mood chain. In the end, Curly gets an ice cream, but the bad mood seems to be hovering again.

The illustrations work well – a multi-coloured bad mood that sets the colour palette for the book, infusing everything with a candy-hued blend and a dominant pastel orange. The cast of characters are shown with a range of emotions – even the animals. This means that the moodiness isn’t isolated; it can spring upon somebody suddenly, but it can also mix with other emotions, providing a contrast, or be diluted itself. Emotions are complex things, but also fleeting…You can buy a copy of the book here.

her right foot

Her Right Foot by Dave Eggers, illustrated by Shawn Harris
A second title from the end of last year, also American, also by a big-name author. But this, as Dave Eggers explains, is a factual book about the origins of the Statue of Liberty. The pace is fast, the author chatty and self-referential, addressing the reader using the second person ‘you’ as he assumes the reader has a basic knowledge of his topic while he quickly documents how the statue was conceived and built.

But the main thrust of the book, reached halfway through, is the foot of the title, which is shown to be walking. At this point, Eggers wants the reader to use their knowledge to think about the meaning behind this. Why is the Statue of Liberty mid-stride? The story leaves the factual behind and crosses into the territory of extrapolation and discovery. If the statue is for freedom, and she is walking, then she is continuing the fight for freedom, for liberty.

Embracing the culture of immigration, of building a nation for freedom, Eggers has created a picture book manifesto for how he views the United States. In our current political climate, this is a pertinent point well made, and the second half of the book shows the mix of immigrants to the States since the Statue of Liberty was constructed, and the ongoing fight for tolerance and acceptance.

The illustrations throughout show a myriad of peoples, as well as places, but feel poster-like in their construction, and display a sense of humour that matches the author’s. Although the book feels a little preachy in places, it’s a good jumping off point for discussion. And remains timely in 2018. You can buy it here.



Seasonal Books for Children (age 6yrs+)

nixie wonderland

Nixie, Wonky Winter Wonderland by Cas Lester, illustrated by Ali Pye
Not unlike The Worst Witch, Nixie is a fairy who doesn’t quite get it right. She has a wonky wand, and makes lots of mistakes, and has a habit of saying “Bumblebees’ Bottoms” when things go wrong. Which happens a lot.

However, her attitude is much feistier than The Worst Witch, although she is much more endearing than a character such as Horrid Henry. The book is aimed at the same audience – newly independent readers, and each book has plenty of vivacious illustrations to accompany the text.

In Wonky Winter Wonderland, the author and illustrator have had much fun playing with the idea of snow, snowball fights, sledging, and a lovely Midwinter Midnight Feast, with sumptuous descriptions of food and preparations. Nixie gets in to trouble, but redeems herself by the end of the day – she is, underneath all her sass, a very good friend, with excellent creativity.

There are some great touches in the Nixie book, the second of the series. The chapters are punctuated by illustrations of Nixie astride a clockface – the chapter’s clock telling the time and giving a narrative shove forwards. Perfect for the age group who can decipher the time as well as learning to read.

Cas Lester’s text is packed full with onomatopeias, things are forever fizzing, whizzing, zapping swooshing and vrooming, which sets quite a pace, and the words are picked out with a zippy typeface so that the story itself seems alive. Names too, sing off the page, for example Twist and Fidget – so that there’s a zing when you read it aloud, as well as easy characterisation – not too unlike Horrid Henry in fact.

Ali Pye’s illustrations match this zest, and are lively and characterful – there are some full page illustrations too, which are delightful. A great series, a great Christmas read. You can buy it here.

on a snowy night

On a Snowy Night by Various
Sometimes at bedtime it’s nice to have a series of short stories to read rather than a full novel, especially for young readers coming to chapter books for the first time. This is a great collection of animal stories, with contributions from some fabulous authors, including Linda Chapman, Jeanne Willis, Holly Webb and Tracey Corderoy to name but a few.

The theme is winter nights, and the authors’ stories complement each other well. Starting with a lovely story told from the point of view of a young Arctic fox gaining bravery in the face of a blizzard, and learning to trust humans, to a herd of goats warmed by the fire from a friendly dragon, to a zebra who helps out Father Christmas when he’s a reindeer down, these are all gentle stories of young animals stepping up to challenges and showing kindness and generosity.

The Sparkle Party was a favourite – a hapless squirrel who tries his best to do something for his friends, but everything keeps going wrong – and also The Only Hoglet, who wants a warm cuddle but is a little too prickly – there is an ingenious idea in this story in which he rolls in winter berries, each sticking to his spikes so that he is softer (if a little messy).

All great concise stories, with an array of animals, and gentle narratives that are easy to follow and comforting on those snowy nights in front of the fire. Purchase it here from Waterstones.

latke who couldnt

The Latke Who Couldn’t Stop Screaming: A Christmas story by Lemony Snicket, illustrations by Lisa Brown
For those families who celebrate Chanukah and Christmas, or have an awareness of both, this is a fun read – packaged this year with a hard red cover and gold embossing, so that it looks and feels gifty.

Lemony Snicket is a master of subversion, and here he has tackled a latke (with reminiscent scenes harking to the gingerbread man) who is on the run, and generally misunderstood.

The latke is born in a house unadorned with Christmas lights – presumably the house in which they celebrate Chanukah not Christmas. The latke screams from the moment it hits the hot oil, and runs away. Throughout the story, Lemony has rather fun ironic punches at the festivities, including explaining that this is a Christmas story “in which things tend to happen that would never occur in real life,” and including the character of the flashing Christmas lights who tells the latke that he is “basically a hash brown”.

It’s funny for grown ups and older children, particularly those who have perhaps been brought up in a country that celebrates Christmas when they themselves don’t. A dry wit, accompanied by simply drawn but very effective colour illustrations. A joy for those who like their festivities with a bit of tongue-in-cheekery. You can buy it here.


The Dark All Around Us

Many small children have a fear of the dark. This can be difficult to address because the dark is an abstract idea; the fear is of the unknown, which makes it hard to conjure in a picture book. However, I have found five books that I think do the job really well in different ways. I’ve listed them in a kind of youngest to oldest order (lots of quibble room here though).

can't you sleep little bear

Can’t you Sleep Little Bear by Martin Waddell, illustrated by Barbara Firth

Although not immediately apparent that this about a fear of the dark, Can’t you Sleep Little Bear displays a perfect juxtaposition of darkness and light. The book kicks off with a light-drenched illustration as the bears play in the snow in bright sunlight, but then soon retreat home for bed to the Bear Cave as the sun goes down. Immediately the illustrations move to the ‘dark’ part of the cave where Little Bear is trying (and failing) to sleep. During the course of the book, Big Bear fetches larger and larger lanterns for Little Bear in the hope of trying to disperse the “dark all around us”. There’s no magic resolution to the story, as it becomes apparent that tiredness overcomes the fear in the end, but it does try to illustrate that there is no real dark, as even outside in the dark, the moon and stars overcome it, and Little Bear ends up “warm and safe in Big Bear’s arms”. There is nothing remotely frightening in this book, no hidden shadows or shapes in the ‘darkness’, just a comforting glow of the adult space. In this way, it can comfort the smallest of children. (There’s even a touch of humour added for the impatient grown up reader).

can't you sleep little bear2


There’s a Dragon Downstairs by Hilary McKay, illustrated by Amanda Harvey
This book won various awards about a decade ago and tackles the darkness in a solid way by illuminating the dark’s distortion of everyday things into monstrous entities; the darkness makes the familiar appear fearsome. Even the pencil lines of the illustrations indicate the ephemeral shadiness of the darkness. There is much sympathy for our protagonist Sophie from her parents, who valiantly search the house for the dragon, although in the end it is Sophie who must fight her own demons! Of course, the end is beautifully reassuring (spoiler alert!) – the dragon is revealed to be none other than the friendly domestic cat. A great way to explore a child’s fear without stating the obvious.

 there's a dragon downstairs

The Owl who was Afraid of the Dark by Jill Tomlinson, illustrated by Paul Howard
A beautiful picture book, which I read as a child as a chapter book – today it is published in both formats. The owl parents in this instance are ‘laissez-faire’ parents, sending the child owl ‘Plop’ to do some research on why it’s good to be a night owl! Plop interviews various humans (and a cat) about the dark to find out why they like it. Each character supplies Plop with a new adjective about the dark:
“The small boy said DARK IS EXCITING. The old lady said DARK IS KIND. The little girl said DARK IS NECESSARY. The man with the telescope said DARK IS WONDERFUL.”
Jill Tomlinson manages to convey Plop’s stubborn childlike qualities in his language;
“I still do not like it AT ALL”,
although he is persuaded in the end. The picture book, illustrated by Paul Howard, conveys the excitement of the fireworks and the magical quality of the night stars, as well providing the most exquisite owl drawings. A book that confronts the fear head on! I never tire of it.

owl who was afraid3owl who was afraid1


The Dark by Lemony Snicket, illustrated by Jon Klassen

A more recent picture book that confronts the fear head on is The Dark. The pictures as much as the text in this book simulate the fear of the little boy Laszlo, who is seen only in rays of light, while the rest of the page stays in the dark. The dark is even personified here, given a voice halfway through the book, which itself is pretty frightening:
“The voice of the dark was as creaky as the roof of the house, and as smooth and cold as the windows, and even though the dark was right next to Laszlo, the voice seemed very far away.”
I’ve suggested this is for slightly older readers because although immensely powerful, during most of the book the illustrations are fairly threatening. Laszlo is a brave hero and ventures further and further into the dark, until the dark is finally explained by Snicket, in fact – explained in the same way as the little girl in The Owl Who Was Afraid of the Dark – as being necessary! The darkness is also generous in The Dark, giving Laszlo a lightbulb to explain how without the dark:
“you would never know if you needed a lightbulb”.
A tricky concept, adeptly handled.

Dark Lemony Snicket

Little Mouse’s Big Book of Fears by Emily Gravett
This is not strictly about the dark, although there is a page about being alone or in the dark, but Emily Gravett’s book uses a different tool from the other books to conquer fears, which is perhaps worth mentioning here: art. Big Book of Fears sets out lots of things that may be frightening, from common childhood fears of dogs and getting lost, to fears that are slightly more obscure, such as fear of clocks, but each time the illustrator implores you to overcome your fears through use of art. Not such a bad idea, when for children, expressing emotions through pictures can be an illuminating task. The other undercurrent here for confronting and defeating fear is humour. The scared mouse taking us through the pages, delights parent and child alike as it recoils from ‘knives’ in a page that features newspaper cuttings on the ‘three blind mice and the farmer’s wife’. There are some excellent pull-outs here too – the page on heights features an exciting map of the Isle of Fright. A great book for starting a conversation about what’s scary and how fears can be confronted and conquered.

Little Mouse book of fears