Tag Archive for May Smith Briony

Listening and Looking

As we move into May, still in lockdown, something has happened to book reviewers. We aren’t getting as many books through the post.* This is for two reasons – firstly, many books that were due to be published in the spring have been moved to the autumn for when (the industry hopes), people are able to browse in bookshops again, and secondly, because there just isn’t anyone in the publishers’ offices to post the books.

At the moment, then, much of my reading is online or through audio. And your children may be experiencing the same.

What’s interesting, in listening to audiobooks, is the range of voices chosen for the narrator. I’ve listened to more accents in the past week than I usually hear in a year, from an Irish lilt to a southern American drawl to what sounds like a very young child’s London accent, but is probably voiced by a startlingly good adult actor. The voices bring a whole new resonance to the text.

And in eerie timing, the National Literacy Trust released some good news about audio books and children just before lockdown began. (National Literacy Trust Audiobooks and Literacy Report February 2020, Emily Best) Listening to audio books means that children can access books they wouldn’t ordinarily be able to read alone, and audio can help children with their understanding of the text by way of tone and pronunciation. The audiobook narrator is a model reader – expression is key, and therefore emotional response may be heightened in the listener: the child’s empathy and understanding are increased. What’s more, the report found that listening requires the same cognitive skills as reading – it is not as passive an activity as you might think.

Some books need to be looked at though – we need to see the illustrations, the colour, the layout and design, the fonts and diagrams. I have been sent ‘digital’ copies of some books for review recently, and for me personally, I miss the physicality of the print book. I like to touch and feel picture books; I find my eye is drawn to different places on the screen as opposed to in print, and I long to be in the physical presence of rows of newly printed books in a bookshop. However, I can spot a good book even in its digital appearance, and I can envisage how it would be to hold it in my hands. Here are two that jumped out at me, and I imagine will be wonderful to finally hold:

nell and the circus of dreams
Nell and the Circus of Dreams by Nell Gifford, illustrated by Briony May Smith
A sumptuously imagined story about a little girl who discovers a temporary circus in the fields beyond her house. Written by Nell Gifford, the owner of Gifford’s Circus, who sadly died in December, this is a richly-written text with magic and heart, matched by the highly-detailed illustrations from Briony May Smith. The little girl, also called Nell, has a sick mother and feels lonely before making friends with a chick, which eventually leads her to the circus community behind her house.

The contrast of her loneliness in the beginning with the packed pages of circus life, buzzing with life and people and the red glow of stage lights is a powerful reminder of the joy of crowds and community, and conjures a new world of inclusivity, inviting aromas, and fun. Although the illustrations, with their imagery of child wonder and nature’s charms, feel old-fashioned, this tale feels particularly relevant to our times. You can buy it here.

wild scientists
Wild Scientists by Steve Mould
A new way of combining the natural world with our perception of teaching science, this book sort of turns things on its head. Split into sections including biology, chemistry, engineering and maths, it aims to show how these sciences are represented naturally – by the animal world. The obvious example is beavers, who are natural engineers with their dam-building, but there are many more obscure examples in the book, such as bat physicists and chilli plant biologists.

What’s most attractive though is that the book is unbelievably bright and colourful, lighting up my computer screen with a mixture of illustrations and photographs – capturing the eye of a cat, the beak of a kingfisher, the hexagons of honeycombs. Showing that we learn from nature, this is a stunning way of teaching science at home. Plenty of diagrams and simple explanations make this a real joy. For age 7+ years. You can buy it here.

*That’s not to say that physical books aren’t still available to purchase. They absolutely are, and all good local bookshops will deliver, as will Waterstones.

With thanks to OUP and DK books for sending me pdfs.

New Rhyming Picture Books

i really want to winI Really Want to Win by Simon Philip, illustrated by Lucia Gagg
Following on from the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize shortlisted I Really Want the Cake, our heroine is back for Sports Day – excited because she knows she’s going to win, and like any good footballer, has planned her celebration.

But she doesn’t win at Sports Day, and then finds she’s not winning at spelling competitions either, nor art prizes nor even a simple game of hide-and-seek. There’s another girl who seems to pick up every trophy (isn’t there always one!) Even when this rival doesn’t achieve top prize, she congratulates the winner graciously. Our heroine is less than gracious.

There are numerous lessons here; one that it’s the enjoyment of the journey, the taking part, that matters, but also, and nicely conceived, is the message that one can’t be good at everything, but everyone has a skill. However, rather than being preachy, it ends with our heroine winning something she’s good at…

It’s not just the fabulous rhythm and rhyming that makes this book great, (some text picked out in large capitals for emphasis, so that it feels as if the girl’s effort is in convincing the reader as well as herself) although these attributes are impeccable. The illustrations are faultless too – the earnestness, desire and straining of the little girl communicated through every picture. Her rival is simply hilarious, winking at the reader, her tummy straining over her shorts when she wins tug of war, her poise as a dancer smug, her posture exemplary.

There is so much to love about this book – the other classmates, the mass of trophies, the utter frustration of the little girl wanting to win, and the incremental detail of her small dog offering comfort, support, and sympathy as the book progresses. An absolute winner.  You can win (buy) here.

tooth fairy in trainingTooth Fairy in Training by Michelle Robinson, illustrated by Briony May Smith
Another fantastic pairing in the picture book world, as Michelle Robinson spins another rhyme about a popular subject, joined by the exquisitely folksy illustrations of May Smith, all lovingly produced inside a full-on iridescent cover that shimmers and shines as any tooth fairy’s wings would.

May is in training to be a tooth fairy, and is taken out by her big sister on ‘collecting’ missions. The issue is that it is not just humans who lose teeth, and so she has to make her way around crafty crocodiles, snakes and sharks. But of course, her most dangerous moment comes in the human’s house.

Briony May has gone to town on her fairy tropes with toadstools, large strawberries, a bed in a matchbox, an array of fairy dust-strewn pages – a definite harking to the days of the flower fairies. This is a fairy world well-imagined with intense attention to detail, and the wonder of teeth in jars, all set in a world gently coloured with the warmth of a yellow light, and the night-time purple streaked with the pink contrails of fairy flight.

Swishes and wishes, keepers and sleepers, the rhymes work well, the rhythm is great for those ‘out-loud’ reads. If you’ve ever had to help out the tooth fairy, or forgotten (oh no), then this book will help explain that sometimes tooth fairies are extremely busy! Find a tooth fairy here.

the runaway peaThe Runaway Pea by Kjartan Poskitt, illustrated by Alex Willmore
Peas have had a bad rap in picture books ever since Evil Pea was created by Sue Hendra, but this friendly Pea is the one who has escaped from the plate, rolled onto the floor and is in search of fun.

It doesn’t start well though, splatting into sauce, plopping into the dog bowl, narrowly escaping being burnt to death in the toaster, before ending up under the fridge with a marvellous host of mouldy other escapees. All should be lost, except that Pea has a surprise ending (due in part to the cleaner of the kitchen and their green awareness!)

This is a clever, witty rhyming book, perfect for read-aloud storytime, that not only increases vocabulary, tells a funny story and will have children laughing, but also ends with an environmental message.

Illustrated by Alex Wilmore, with an eye for cartoon expression and characterisation, each page takes the simple shapes of the kitchen and fashions a whole landscape from them, imbuing the fruit and vegetables with telling facial expressions. Fun, fast and imaginative, Runaway Pea rivals Evil Pea. It is, to quote the publishers, definitely appealing. Run away with a pea here.