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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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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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.

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!

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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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. Continue reading