Tag Archive for Lloyd Jones Rob

Shakespeare 400

As you will know by now, 2016 marks 400 years since Shakespeare died. It’s quite difficult to review Shakespeare books for children, as most adults come to the plays with at least a gist of the plot line, and also with a preconceived notion of who Shakespeare was and the influence he wields over our inherited culture, whereas children are approaching him afresh. As someone who studied Shakespeare at university, it’s hard to separate existing knowledge from the presentation of Shakespeare in children’s stories, but seeing as it is a big Shakespeare year, I thought I’d reach out to children’s publishers and see what they are producing for the commemoration. And this is what I found.

to wee or not

To Wee or Not to Wee! By Pamela Butchart and Thomas Flintham

Pamela Butchart is a favourite children’s comic author, and she has tackled Shakespeare with aplomb. After taking part in the BBC School Radio Shakespeare Retold project, she has tried her hand at retelling four of the best known Shakespeare plays in this little collection: Hamlet, Macbeth, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Romeo and Juliet.

Each story starts by introducing the role call of characters, as one would at the start of a play, but then each story reverts to prose. The stories are told by a contemporary child, Izzy, who is something of an expert on the stories, and likes to show off how things that happen in her life can be related to Shakespeare plays.

For example, her friend Zach is totally indecisive, and she compares this to Hamlet – and proceeds to tell her friends the story. Likewise, a feud between her mother and her friend’s mother over invitations to a party is relatable to the feud between the Montagues and Capulets. Sort of.

It’s completely tongue in cheek, and made me snort out loud, not only in the tenuous connections between Izzy’s life and Shakespeare, but also in her retellings. For example Ophelia is fed up that Hamlet doesn’t want to marry her, not only because he’s mean to her, but also because her wedding dress is non-refundable.

Izzy explains how the Capulets and Montagues fell out over a hoover. Izzy thinks Macbeth should have de-stressed a little by doing a Sudoku instead of burning Macduff’s house down to the ground and killing all his family. Butchart brilliantly conveys the excitement, madcapness, blood, gore and love twists in her stories, but also adds a brilliantly modern childlike prose style to capture emotions.

Some fabulous illustrations accompany the text – as well as much of the text being in huge capitals or squiggles to convey when people are POISONED, or MURDERED or IN LOVE.

They are funny, thrilling and funny again. Never before has the retelling of Hamlet made me laugh so much. And of course there’s always Midsummer Night’s Dream, which has a man called Bottom in it. Perfect for children of all ages – even the grown up kind. Highly recommend. You can buy it here.

boy and globe

The Boy and the Globe by Tony Bradman, illustrated by Tom Morgan-Jones

With precision and acute attention to detail, master storyteller Tony Bradman illuminates the time of Shakespeare with a brilliant little story about Toby, a young orphan on the streets of London during the time of Shakespeare.

Sent by a Fagin type ringmaster called Moll Cut-Purse, Toby tries his criminal luck pickpocketing at the Globe. But he stumbles across a certain famous playwright, who needs Toby’s help in more ways than one. Before long, Toby is staking out rival players at the Rose theatre, helping Will with sticky plot points, and even acting in a play himself.

The story whizzes along in a jaunty and happy style. The young Toby is peppy and interesting and perks up the character of Shakespeare, who is portrayed as slightly jaded and in need of some youthful spark. Bradman has set his story towards the end of Shakespeare’s London playwriting career, so that his reputation already preceded him.

The story is fun in itself, but the huge amount of historical detail simply dropped into the story means that the reader comes away with a good picture of how life was in Shakespeare’s time. Added to this, are the production touches given to the book itself – from the endpapers (covered in Yorick skulls) to the fake splodges of ink on the pages, which lend themselves to the idea of the book being written by quill, and the contents – laid out like the beginning of Shakespeare plays, complete with the cast, the time and the place. Tom Morgan-Jones has inked his own unique illustrations, beautifully illuminating scenes and emotions.

The story manages to explain the idea behind The Tempest, the role of the players, the rival theatres, and Shakespeare himself, all in short chapters and encapsulated within a ‘ducking and diving’ action story.

The activities at the end of the book add further colour, with street scenes and Shakespearean insults. And it’s dyslexia-friendly too. Read this and you certainly won’t have “a February face, So full of frost, of storm and cloudiness.” You can purchase it here.

wills words

Will’s Words: How William Shakespeare Changed the Way You Talk by Jane Sutcliffe and John Shelley

A phenomenal book, with wise words and witty illustrations, drawing attention to which words Shakespeare created and brought into common usage – so much of our language today. It cleverly describes, in a few well-chosen words, what it was like in Shakespeare’s time – from the streets of London to inside the Globe, and backstage. Each double page spread shows a hugely colourful illustration packed with people and historical detail – almost a Shakespeare Where’s Wally.

Jane Sutcliffe summarises what’s happening in the scene, using words and phrases that are now in general usage thanks to Shakespeare – either words he invented himself, or words that he simply brought into common usage. A box-off at the side explains the phrases, any changes in meaning, and which play they come from.

It’s an ingenious concept, superbly executed – I could have read pages more. The illustrations are worth poring over. The packed London scenes include the stocks, pickpockets, sedan chairs, and different classes of people in the hustle and bustle of an ordinary day. John Shelley shows us old-school bridges with houses and buildings stretching across the Thames, as well as the first printers – churning out leaflets to advertise Shakespeare’s new plays.

The scenes in the Globe portray different plays, as well as a cross-section of backstage, which is brilliantly done – a trapdoor, a costume room etc. The audience too is amazingly detailed – you can see whether the audience is shocked by the tragedy, roused by the history, and amused by the comedy. There’s even a fascinating explanation of the theatrical phrase ‘box office’.

The text is easy to read, and well-written – and hugely enjoyable, as is the postscript from Jane at the end, which winningly describes the relevance of Shakespeare. He made his audiences feel – and this book too makes the reader feel – it’s inspirational and makes you want to delve further into Shakespeare. Standing ovation all round (except of course, most of them were already standing at The Globe!) Get this one here.

romeo short sharp

Short Sharp Shakespeare Stories: Romeo and Juliet retold by Anna Claybourne, illustrated by Tom-Morgan Jones

It’d be remiss of me not to include a series of Shakespeare books that retell each play singly, so that readers getting to grips with Shakespeare can pick and choose which play they want to learn about. These Short Sharp Shakespeare books really break down each play, and as above, they are illustrated by Tom-Morgan Jones, who manages to inject each illustration with wit, and personality.

After introducing the gist of the story and the who’s who with a strangely complicated graphic, the story is told in prosaic chapters with contemporary language, although with the authentic elements left in, such as duels, swords, candles and silver platters. Every so often an illustration features a speech bubble with the original language, and this is extrapolated at the bottom of the page to explain difficult words and phrases.

The text reads with enough wit and pace and fun to grip the reader:

“…he suddenly saw the most enchanting, heart-stoppingly pretty girl he had ever laid eyes on. It was not Rosaline. Rosaline was forgotten at once.”

The pages at the back provide extra tidbits for project work, including explanations of the difference between prose, dialogue and stage directions – writing as a play as opposed to a novel, breaks down the play into acts, gives some context to Shakespeare and the stage, as well as introducing the main themes within the play. A really perfect guide for readers being introduced to the plays, either before studying the original, or before viewing on stage. For ages 9+ years. You can buy it here.

shakespeare sticker

Usborne Shakespeare Sticker Book, illustrated by Paul Nicholls and written by Rob Lloyd Jones

This is a completely different way to approach Shakespeare of course, but leads with factual elements, overseen by an expert from The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, so is reliable information. The first few pages set the scene by describing the idea of ‘players’ to perform plays, and go on to discuss life in London at the time, and the Globe playhouse – bringing history to life with intricate details. Each spread has a small amount of text and a large backdrop and then it’s up to the reader to drop in the stickers where they like.

This is where the fun begins. The stickers are light-hearted and hilarious – from the overly dramatic expressions of the players to the spectator who is clearly bored and asleep. There is a lovely selection of rats to place in the scenes of London life, and some brilliant sword-fighting stickers for the scenes at The Globe. The last few spreads are dedicated to a few select plays, including The Tempest, Midsummer, Macbeth and Julius Caesar. Illustrator Paul Nicholls has gone to town on the witches for Macbeth, the fish in The Tempest, and fairy wings for Midsummer. Hilarious and captivating. I can’t wait to start sticking. Especially the numerous angry Romans with blood-dripping daggers in Julius Caesar. Try it here.

It’s Shakespeare Saturday this weekend, 23 April. See here for participating bookshops, and grab a Shakespeare Saturday tote bag as part of Books Are My Bag campaign.

Space Books: Because there’s a solar eclipse happening!

As well as being National Science Week, on Friday March 20th the moon will pass directly between the Sun and the Earth, blocking out light for many. This is the biggest solar eclipse in Europe since 1999 and schoolkids up and down the country will be learning what it is (and viewing it through special glasses – eye protection is essential if viewing the eclipse.)

To further understand what happens beyond our world and sky, I’ve been looking at some information space books for children.

Look Inside Space

For your youngest astronauts, you can’t beat Usborne Look Inside Space. Published 2012, so in no way old and out-of-date, this is an exciting illustrated title for young enthusiasts. It has lift the flaps and fold-out-pages to provide interactivity, and covers getting into space, the moon, the International Space Station, stars, the solar system, galaxies and general questions at the back. It starts with very basic information:
“From space, Earth looks like a round ball. The blue bits are sea. The green bits are land.”
and progresses quickly on to how stars are born. The illustrations are friendly and yet informative – cute pictures of astronauts asking questions, but also good representations of what the different planets look like. It doesn’t feature the solar eclipse, but does have a lovely section on the history of star gazing. Aged 5 and over.

story of stars

My other favourite for this age group is Neal Layton’s Story of Stars, which I reviewed here.

professor astro cat

For further inspiration at a slightly older level, try Professor Astro Cat’s Frontiers of Space. Told in a chatty way, as if the Professor is talking directly to you, the book talks through many topics including the universe, birth of a star, galaxies, the sun, solar system and all the different planets, space travel, telescopes, the death of stars and the future. Each page is jam packed with information told in little nuggets with illustrations and also graphics to explain things. There are also funny pictures of Professor Astro Cat along the way to liven things up, but not in too childish a way – more comic like. The colours are muted but the pages feel lush and textured, so that you almost feel as if you’re looking through an art book, but about space. There are nice touches, such as explaining how big the planets would be if Earth was a cherry tomato, and using a balloon to show how a rocket works. There is so much information in this book that it has striking longevity and yet at no time seems overwhelming. The humour jumps out of every page too. A clever book, teaching facts while inspiring children. There isn’t an index, and I couldn’t find information on a solar eclipse, but I was struck by the illustrations and guide to constellations, and spent a great deal of time looking at this. Aged 8 and over.

Collins first book of solar system

For those children who just like hard facts without any of the illustrations or extra gimmicks, Collins My First Book of the Solar System suits the bill. Although the artworks are all detailed photographs taken in space or by telescopes, the layout and presentation is unexciting and fairly uninspiring. Saying that, this came top for one of my child reviewers, simply because the information is starkly laid out making the facts accessible and easy to gather. Each planet has a fact page, with crucial information such as length of day, distance from sun, diameter etc. There are graphics to show orbits and position in space, as well as a timeline of man’s exploration of space. A quiz and comprehensive glossary at the back, with clear text throughout. It does feature both solar and lunar eclipses on the moon page. Recommended for fact gatherers aged 8 and over.

Other series that have titles on space and are frequently found in school libraries, although maybe not so much in homes, because they tend to look more educational are 100 Facts: Space, and Fact Cat the Moon.

fact cat moon100 facts space

Much more ‘educational’ looking than those reviewed above is Fact Cat the Moon from the Fact Cat series of space books, each title of which goes into slightly more depth on each subject. It features photographic graphics rather than illustrations, each clearly labelled, and asks questions of the reader as well as giving easy to understand information. The book covers topics from what is the moon? to its surface, inside, cycle, and man exploring the moon – but each page is fairly simple and contains the minimum of information to suit the age group. I couldn’t find anything about solar eclipses, and I was frustrated by a rather silly demonstration about the moon’s orbit, but I liked that it included information about tides. Aged 6yrs and over.
100 Facts about Space is more exciting and has 100 paragraphs throughout the book giving information – illustrated with a mixture of photographs and artworks. There are cartoons interspersed with these paragraphs, entitled ‘I don’t believe it’ giving extra facts, and some good graphics, such as the moon cycle, and location of the planets. There is a feature on solar eclipses, and a diagram to show what happens. It’s a colourful and lively book. Aged 8+.