Book Reviews

The King Of Space : Jonny Duddle

The King of SpaceThe King of Space by Jonny Duddle

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Well, this is adorable.

Jonny Duddle’s perhaps best known for his Pirates books, and indeed that’s where I know his name from. My library didn’t have those in but they did have this. And this is ace.

The King of Space is brilliant. It reads a little like a hybrid of the Eagle comics I used to steal from my brothers, and a Pixar movie; its round, full-cheeked and distinctly filmic artwork meshes up with some superb little details that feel resolutely British somehow, as though they may have fallen out of a Dan Dare or a PC 49 comic.

Rex lives on a Moog farm with his mum and dad in the middle of the Gamma quadrant. He may be little, but he has BIG plans. He is plotting to become THE KING OF SPACE. I feel capital letters are justified, it’s that sort of a thing. As he himself states on the title splash, “Soon the whole universe will know MY name!”.

This book is such a smile. It starts with the wide-eyed moog of the moog (basically a cow in space, strapped in with sensible straps so it doesn’t float away and a bug-eyed headlight-caught gaze. Basically brilliant), and builds from that point. The robot (sorry, WARBOT) admonishing Rex’s audience to clap, the ‘all-powerful on your own planet’ conversation, and a particularly lovely reveal fold out page towards the end of the book.

There is a million and one things to enjoy about this book. Rex himself says it best, with the luscious little sf in-joke of: “Resistance is futile” Get your hands on this.

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Book Reviews

Dixie O’Day In The Fast Lane : Shirley Hughes & Clara Vulliamy

Dixie O'Day: In The Fast LaneDixie O’Day: In The Fast Lane by Shirley Hughes

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It’s books like this that make me remember why I enjoy children’s literature so. I’ve spoken before about my love for Hughes and Vulliamy; the bold, generous, reader-centred nature of their writing and artwork, and so came to Dixie with great expectations.

Which was odd, really, because I Do Not Get Cars. I mean, I really don’t. Horses, ballet, witches and wizards I get, but cars leave me spectacularly cold. Spectacularly. It remains family legend that on the only time I have ever had cause to phone my car insurance people and they asked “What was the other car?” and I said “…….red?”

Cars and me don’t mix. (“And where did the incident occur?” “….near the Chinese?”)

But I think Dixie O’Day might just work for me. It’s a chapter book for new chapter book readers; structured in a considered seven chapter format (ie: one for every night of the week). And that, just that gets a star from me because it is clever and fun and smart. Hughes and Vulliamy get how to make books good. That’s possibly the least critically astute sentence I’ve ever written but it’s true. Hughes’ text is vividly Hughesian (can we make that a verb? Let’s) and writes a story with influences ranging from Whacky Races through to the Wind In The Willows. It’s lovely. There’s not many people that know how to construct text for this age group without being either viciously didactic or patronising. Hughes never, ever does either. There’s a rather empowering feel to the text of Dixie and it’s something quite brilliant.

Vulliamy is one of my great picture book loves. I adore her artwork and her skill in making a book so open and generous in a way. Her work is something to be savoured and to be devoured all at the same time.

In Dixie, Vulliamy’s centred on a red, black and white spectrum of colours. This ranges through ear-grey, smokey broken-engine-blacks, through to smug-car-pink. Her Dixie and Percy are vividly delightful (and reminiscent to me of another great double act – Winnie the Pooh and Piglet), and there are moments in this book that made me (who doesn’t do cars!) squeal with delight. The ‘black smoke’ moment on page ten is just perfectly constructed.

I often have people ask me why I treat children’s literature in the way that I do, and as I mentioned at the start of this review, it’s books like this which remind me. I write these sorts of reviews and I read these sorts of books because they are, regardless of how they’re dressed up or presented, story. At the heart of it, they’re stories which tell us how to be brave, or to be a good friend or how sometimes the best thing in life is a custard cream at the right time. And all of that happens in this book which makes me now, very much, Team Dixie.

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Book Reviews Theory

Rhythm and Rhyme in Madeline

Rhythm is a comforting thing in picture books. At a stage when the reader is pre-literate, or developing their literacy, and the book is being delivered in the norm by another, literate, individual, the aural nature of language comes to prominence. Or, to be less wordy, rhythm and rhyme are deliciously divine.

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Cover Analysis : The 100 most wished for books on Amazon

So, slightly prompted by this, and by my wish to revisit this, I took a look at the 100 most wished for books on Amazon and did a little bit of analysis.

The facts: I looked at this list on 9th September 2013, over a several hour period (ie: once in the morning before work, and once after). Therefore the actual order of items may have changed and will have changed if you look at it now. Also, remember that this is a list of those that are most wanted – not bestsellers.

So, with all that out of the way, I found this list ridiculously interesting.


It’s in order (1-100) and does include duplicates. The obvious ones are Patrick Ness’ ‘More Than This’ and a couple of the Wimpy Kids. It was dominated by Cassandra Clare, John Green, Julia Donaldson and Veronica Roth. There were several ‘media’ books on there such as the One Direction annual, a Lego tie-in and an In The Night Garden boxed set. A couple of film tie ins featured – the Mortal Instruments books and also the Hobbit.

But have a look at the colours.

I was surprised, really, at the darkness of the covers and the preponderance of reds and blues. Note that this list covers comics and graphic novels as well as picture books, so it’s very much an umbrella view rather than drilling down to say the specifics of front cover design in middle grade literature.

So what can we tell from this (incredibly precise) research?

Firstly you can tell that I’m in love with John Green’s cover designs. Seriously. And I think Patrick Ness’ front covers are up there too for me.

Secondly, I think the importance of ‘brand’ needs to be recognised. Have a look at the Cassandra Clare front covers. I won’t tell you which they are because, I think, you can recognise them. They’re quite iconic in their styling and consistent – and they do bring your attention to it. This is branding, consistent and swiftly identifiable across the titles in the series. Once you know the branding of these books, you know them. Same goes for Ally Carter and her Gallagher Girls books.

Thirdly, I don’t think anything from children’s literature is *quite* ready to appear in Private Eye’s ‘Bookalikes’ column! The diversity in style is impressive. Though I acknowledge that the colours are, as mentioned, of a distinctly similar hue, I’m struck by the difference between say ‘Diamond’ and ‘Wonder – two front covers which bookend their respective lines. There’s a commonality in that they both feature faces looking out but where ‘Diamond’ has the vivid, almost childlike edge of Sharratt’s drawings, ‘Wonder’ has an incredibly dynamic and almost stark image.

Fourthly, I need to know more about book cover designers. I need to know their names!  I think we forget just how good they are and can be. Book covers are, in so many cases, the ‘entry point’ to a text and these have made me swell my Goodreads’ ‘Want To Read’ pile to mammoth proportions. Which is good. It’s very, very good.

And finally? Well, I’d be interested to see whether a similar sort of colour spectrum emerges from the 100 bestsellers (which obviously I shall be doing a post in the near future).

I’m also very, very interested in the absence of obviously gendered front covers on this list. I know through chatting with some of my excellent colleagues on Twitter that it’s very easy to view colours as a sort of semiotic shorthand for character attributes and preconceptions and that’s something I’m keen to avoid. It’s also easy to map these preconceptions and your own experience onto the world of literature (ie: you ‘see’ X, so you expect X to be everywhere – I’m aware this might not make much sense but I will be elaborating on it in the near future) so it’s useful to do an exercise like this to remind oneself of alternate perspectives.

And now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go and buy John Green’s entire back catalogue.

Book Reviews

Hey good looking!

Image of front cover
The Story of the Treasure Seekers by         E Nesbit

I like the pretty books. I’ll glare pointedly at anyone who calls e-books the death of literature (because, you know, they’re not), but I do love a book that is as edible as this. This is a reprint of The Story Of The Treasure Seekers by the great and wondrous E Nesbit. It has a foreword in by Julia “Gruffalo” Donaldson and it’s published by Hesperus Press (Twitter). Review coming soon … once I stop drooling at that front cover!

Book Reviews

The Island : Armin Greder

The IslandThe Island by Armin Greder

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

There’s a difficulty sometimes when considering picture books and that difficulty is this: they are inescapable. There’s always a level of semiotic interpretation that occurs with a sign, be that sign a word or an image, but I think that the breadth of interpretation narrows when we think about images. If I write the word “cat” for example, what do you think of? A kitten? An adult cat? Sleeping? Jumping? Eating? And what colour is it? Is it alone? With a family? Being stroked?

Now, if I show you a picture of a cat I am showing you something that you cannot easily shift into another context. I am showing you the cat that I see when I write the word, I am showing you my cat. Of course you can then take that image and lay it on top of your image of cat, but I am dictating, however briefly, what I want you to see.

And that, all of that, is something which struck me when thinking about The Island. It is an inescapable book.

It starts with the front cover, that oppressive, dark block of colour, rearing away from you. It’s perspective, yes, but it’s also something else. It almost doesn’t want you to touch it. It is a book that comes with a built in recoil.

Ironic, really, when we finally open it up and see what’s inside. It is the story of a man who is shipwrecked on an island. The pages are full of white space, rolling acres of it that in this case act as a focaliser. There is nowhere else for us to look so we look at the man. The man who “wasn’t like them.” We look at him, his silent nudity, and we try to find this difference that is written in the text in him.

It is not there.

And so, as we realise the intense futility and awfulness of this story and what is about to happen, we are locked in the role of passive onlooker. We cannot change what is about to happen, we cannot tell the islanders to stop – being – so – wrong – and we cannot do anything but watch. And we can’t walk away. That’s the thing about this book – it doesn’t let you go. It is the most uncomfortable and inescapable and brilliant of things.

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Overviews Theory

The use of Framing and Composition in Ellen and Penguin : Clara Vulliamy

I’ve spoken before about how much I love Clara Vulliamy’s skill with picture books. She’s got an awareness and respect – and love – for the medium that translates into some very good and very smart books. It was with some excitement when I discovered Ellen and Penguin and the New Baby nestling on the bottom shelves of my library.

Ellen and Penguin and the New Baby is a very sensitive and  charming book that is practically a lesson in frames and composition. So I thought I’d share some of that with you by looking at how Ellen is treated throughout the book.

Book Reviews

Ella’s Big Chance : Shirley Hughes

Ella's Big Chance: A Jazz-Age CinderellaElla’s Big Chance: A Jazz-Age Cinderella by Shirley Hughes

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

There’s a richness to everything Shirley Hughes produces, and it’s this richness which comes to the forefront of Ella’s Big Chance. This, as the front cover, states is ‘a fairy tale retold’. It is a retelling of Cinderella, set in ‘the jazz-age’. And it is practically glowing with riches.

Cinderella is such an archetypal story that it needs very little precis. It is the story of a girl, her wicked stepmother and a night on the town that Cinderella will never forget.

In this story, we meet Ella, the daughter of Mr Cinders. The two of them run a dressmaking shop ‘in a quiet but elegant part of town’. There’s an air of faded gentility from the start as the sun eases through the windows to illustrate the shop – the colours, living, under the touch of Ella and her father.

Ella herself is something particularly glorious. Drawn as a sort of Gina Lollobrigida meets Sophia Loren hybrid both facially and physically, her hair close cropped into a wild bob, she’s an all too rare and incredibly beautiful creation. I loved her.

As ever in a Hughes book, there’s a deep awareness of time and the experience of the reader. She’s never selfish in her illustrations, there’s always some sort of – look at me – moment to every scene. The majority of the pages are constructed in a half and half scenario, a white block of text playing next to, or opposite a full colour image. What’s particularly interesting in these pages is that the majority of the text sections have a sort of ‘transitory’ image in pen and ink. These simple black and white moments carry a lot of the book until the ball, and they do so because of their elegance. They transition the reader from scene to scene, joining the story together in a sort of visual stitching. Hughes is very skilled at not letting you go once she has you.

When we reach the ball scene, which is something we’re always waiting for in a Cinderella story, it is not disappointing. Hughes goes for it and produces images that are just – richness. They are luscious and edible and dreamlike all at the same time. She balances the vivid intensity of the moment with human touches. When Ella arrives at the ball, walking down the stairs in her silver dress that is visually stunning, Hughes throws in moments all over the scene. A gentleman at the edge of the far page has eyes for nobody but Ella even though his partner is talking; a group of women stare in shock and distaste at this competitor, whilst another woman serene in her duties as host holds out her arm to greet Ella who pauses, so very briefly, at the stairs to close her eyes and savour the moment.

It’s worthwhile to note that in this book Hughes designed all of the dresses. So when you read it, remember this and note her use of colours and shapes. See how Ella in her black shift dress is the centre of the picture, always, linked by the black and white images that thread through this book and yet somehow, always in the shadows, her dress blurring into the darkness of the shop and the cellar. Watch the peacock nature of one of Ella’s step-sisters, posing in her vivid red dress, uncaring that she blocks up half of the image and steals focus from her sister. Look at the way Ella’s ball dress is conjured from the night and the stars and the silvery magic of her fair godmother.

Look a this book, and treasure it, and take your time over it. And then do it all over again. It’s a book that rewards slow, leisurely, indulgent reading.

(And it gives you the most perfect, perfect of conclusions).

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Book Reviews

The Savage : David Almond / Dave McKean

The SavageThe Savage by David Almond

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The wild child phenomenon is something that’s been represented repeatedly in literature, perhaps most notably in the case of The Wild Boy of Aveyron. But it’s never been treated like this.

Almond and McKean have produced a strange, enthralling hybrid of a book. It’s not quite picture book, it’s not quite graphic novel, it’s a layer between the two – switching from one story to the other and then eventually, beautifully tightening the gaps between the two. I won’t attempt to write a synopsis of it, because I don’t think that would do it justice. What I will say is that it deals with themes of masculinity, bullying, and the real / fantasy world but do note that it’s definitely not one for younger children, as it contains scenes of physical violence and intense imagery. And what I will also say is that The Savage is one of those books to experience, and experience it you must.

It’s stunning. My love for David Almond grows with every book of his I read. What he does so very well is he writes the primal magic of childhood. Remember the days when snow was amazing and not something that made your commute impossible? Almond does. And here he produces something quite stunning, drawing in elements of the wild child myth but also moments reminiscent of The Lord of The Flies and even at points bits that made me think of Apocalypse Now.

The artwork is what completes this though. It’s similarly outstanding. McKean’s work is exuberant, viciously so. It revels in telling the story and it’s beautiful. Some of the moments where the Savage is exploring the town are full of a kinetic, primal energy that falls off the page. McKean’s sense of the visual, the construction of his images is superb. What’s particularly stunning is that the majority of these images are told in such a limited colour palette. We have forest scenes, coloured all in greens, shifting from light misty pale washes for the background, all the way down to dark, almost black shadows cast across peoples faces. And then, at night, the darkness is expressed in tones of blues, from light to dark, and then, when required, punching straight into great swathes of empty, page swallowing blacks.

This is outstanding in every way. I read. I cried. I gasped. And I fell in love with Almond. Again.

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Everything else

A few of my favourite things : Cloudland

Here’s the start of an occasional series focusing on some of my favourite covers from picture books. What I want to do is to focus on the image and the artwork and the moment itself rather than critiquing the entire book. The first in this series is the ethereal and outstanding Cloudland by John Burningham.

Cloudland front cover

One of the things about books that I love, and picture books in particular, is the usage of the ‘entire’ book space. By this I mean, the book itself spills over into the endpapers and the cover. Naturally we expect a front cover to every book, but there’s something rather gorgeous and unique about the picture book front cover. Picture books are intensely and deceptively complicated beasts. They need to appeal to the pre-literate, the emerging literate, and the adult who will at some point be reading this to and with their child. That’s a lot to ask from a book and it’s something we should recognise as a massive achievement – and it’s one that’s quite often achieved without words.

So here, the front cover symbolises something special. It’s a note of stylistic intent – the ‘overlay’ of the cut-out felt tip pens characters exuberant on the ‘real’ world of the cloud. I love this artwork- it instantly adds a level of otherworldliness to this cover and throughout the book. Rooting the children in a different medium to that of the clouds gives a sort of bigness to their presence. It is as if to say that these children are so potent, so big, that they can master the clouds that fade into the background. These children also very much float which is glorious to see throughout the book. By not having them ever ‘touch’ the clouds that they’re on, the children are given such a light ethereal quality that you almost expect them to float through the pages and out of the book. I remember once turning a page in Cloudland and marvelling at the way the previous page could be seen from the new spread when I held it up to the light. This phenomenon, whilst not necessarily unusual, was something gorgeous in this book because it added to the unreal nature of the children. They were shaped by sunlight and not even held by the page, they span through the book like mist.

The title of Cloudland itself appears without a hyphenate, suggesting an actual location, and it’s one that looks full of fun. These children are happy – the two in the white shirts are clearly playing, and what’s more they’re waving. We look to find ourselves in pictures and there’s an invitation here straight away for the reader to join in with the party.

But what’s more interesting is the central boy. He feels a little unsure, a little tentative. His movements are more precise and there’s a suggestion of him reaching for something – or even climbing. He adds an element of uncertainty to the cover and it’s through him being placed centrally that we realise that this uncertainty – and the boy himself – are to be central to this story.

Books like this develop – and enhance – literacies, and do so phenomenally well. To read more on visual literacy and the art of reading visual imagery, check out the work of Scott McCloud and in particular Understanding Comics and its sequels.

Everything else

This is BRILLIANT book design

Tells you everything you need to know about the book at one glance. Blinking brilliant design work.

Everything else

Mystery of the million-dollar briefcase!

This is amazing. Please take a look at the original source for this post which is  here

I also really want a library book briefcase now.