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Children’s Picturebooks : The Art of Visual Storytelling by Martin Salisbury and Morag Styles

Children's Picturebooks: The Art of Visual Storytelling front cover

Children’s Picturebooks: The Art of Visual Storytelling by Martin Salisbury and Morag Styles

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


A revised edition of their original 2012 text, Martin Salisbury and Morag Styles ‘Children Picturebooks : The Art of Visual Storytelling‘ (2019) occupies a space somewhere between academia and coffee table. It offers a general introduction to the world of picture books whilst occasionally pausing to dive deeper into the theoretical issues about them. It is a beautiful, big volume (and one with a reasonable price point, she says, conscious of the ridiculous cost of many of these things) and also one that delivers copious and rather beautiful imagery. Some of the text gets a little lost against the artwork – particularly in the case studies, I felt – but the art is often so strong that I suspect this is a rather inevitable thing. And there are some pages that are simply breathtaking, focusing on risk-taking and wonderful artwork that hasn’t yet broken through the restrictions of the general UK publishing market. Please can somebody publish an English language version of Håret til mamma? It made me stop in my tracks.

Children’s Picturebooks is a valuable foundational read, to study and use as an inspiration for creative work and research. Practicalities preclude me recommending it as a lightweight, quick read – it is a hefty, big beast of a book that covers everything from a brief history of the picture book through to non-fiction, boutique publishers, and much much more. Interleaved throughout all of this are some fascinating case-studies focusing upon the work of particular artists, writers and publishers. These are an immensely important and valuable selling point and one that make this book very interesting. It’s so important to see page dummies, initial sketches and outlines – developmental media – and hear from the creative in question. I was a little concerned at first that many of the interviewees seemed to be drawn from the same pool (no pun intended) but this broadened out as the book developed.

The academic bibliography is also incredibly useful, though I’d have also welcomed a bibliography of the picture books featured in the text. I was also conscious that this book does focus quite heavily on European / Western titles – though a distinct effort is made towards non-English language titles (particularly in the chapters detailing difficult / challenging topics), it does tend to lean towards UK specificity. This is no bad thing, but I’d have welcomed it to wear its context a little more overtly on its sleeve and also have more Dick Bruna and Shirley Hughes. Everything should have more Dick Bruna and Shirley Hughes.

So, to sum: a valuable, broad, big introduction to the world of picture books. A little picky in its approach (but then, you have to be if you’re doing something that offers an introduction to the world of picture books and don’t have three hundred million pages to do so…), but still an incredibly interesting and fascinating read, particularly if you’re new to the sector. And the artwork! Superb.

My thanks to the publisher for a review copy.

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The Snail and the Whale by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler

The Snail and the Whale by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler front cover

The Snail and the Whale Festive Edition by Julia Donaldson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I like what Julia Donaldson does. Her partnership with Axel Scheffler has clearly been fulfilling for the two of them, though I wonder sometimes whether their other work has been consumed by The Monster We Must Not Name That Begins With G. This does happen a lot with popular authors and artists – they gain a sort of shorthand that, for many people, becomes the way to understand who they are and what they do. For Donaldson and Scheffler, that shorthand is so often the Gruffalo (especially in the libraries that I’ve worked in and the readers that I’ve worked with!) that other titles, I wonder, become a little lost in the shadows. It’s been something I’ve been thinkin about – how to embrace that popularity but also how to work to destabilise and challenge them. And so when I received a copy of The Snail and The Whale, and realised that it’s actually been a while since I’ve read a Donaldson / Scheffler offering, I wanted to use it as an opportunity – hence this review.

(Hence! oh dear! do forgive me for that!).

The Snail And The Whale was first published in 2003. It’s an old book in this shifting, quick world of children’s literature today, and has been republished due to a new adaptation of it coming out Christmas 2019. It’s also got an increasing relevance, touching as it does upon matters of ecology and global awareness, so I can see why it’s been republished. It’s a powerful story that reminds children of their agency (even the smallest voices matters!) and I very much enjoyed it. Donaldson’s text is powerful, yearning always to move on and find that next rhythm, that next beat, whilst Scheffler’s art is beautiful. It’s rich, warm and gorgeous stuff though I did have mild concerns about the physics of the whale swimming everywhere with its tail sticking out the water. (I know, I know, fun times at my house.) But! Let’s focus on what this is. It’s an environmental fable, fun and heart-warming, and rather lovely done.

But if I get another picture book come through with rubbish or non-existent endpapers, I will write a strongly worded letter to whoever’s in charge. Picture books deserve good endpapers. They are some of the richest literary earth to plough, and they shouldn’t be neglected or worse, forgotten. Sort it out, publishing.

My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.



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Snow Still by Holly Surplice

Snow Still by Holly Surplice front cover

Snow Still by Holly Surplice

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Snow Still by Holly Surplice is a charming and cleanly told story, perfect for sharing on a wintery day. A fawn explores the wintery world about them (it’s characterised as a ‘he’ on the back, but as I am no expert in recognising gender in deers and the text never explicitly refers to a ‘he’, I shall settle with alternative pronouns) before returning home to be with their parents. Their adventure is scored by a series of rhythmic couplets, all of which begin with the word ‘snow’. So we have the fawn playing with some rabbits – ‘snow hide’ – and then when the owl flies high above a vast, empty plain – ‘snow silent’. The ending sees a paired couple for the first time as the fawn snuggles in for a sleep ‘Snow safe, / snow sleep’. It’s charming stuff.

Snow Still is told in a series of really elegant big double page spreads that fully embrace the wintery world from all perspectives – there’s a gorgeous moment with an owl that feels intensely filmic, for example, and Surplice does not shy away her subject. This is a book about winter and sometimes books that take on this season can feel curiously empty times, dwarfed not only by the limited colour palette but also the great scale of the thing. Winter is big. Sometimes books struggle with grasping that, particularly from a young and small perspective. Snow Still handles it very well, moving from the intimacy of the forest to the open, big meadow (? it’s under snow…), and using the landscape to give space and rhythm to the story. Even with this, the text does feel a little disjointed, perhaps, if you’re looking for a more conventional style but it’s kind of lovely to let the images do so much work.

A particular hallmark of this book is the use of gilt throughout. Each spread is highlighted with silver and, I admit, I was worried about this being a bit – well – tacky. It’s used fairly judiciously and with some restraint, acting more as a highlight of colour, shape and movement then some cheap effect. It’s a shame that the endpapers don’t push this motif further (use. your. endpapers. people) – they’re ripe for something special as opposed to the rather generic spotted red affair that they are. Nevertheless, this is still a charming book and something that when it works, works intensely well.

My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

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Julian Is A Mermaid by Jessica Love

Julian Is a Mermaid by Jessica Love front cover

Julian Is a Mermaid by Jessica Love

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It’s difficult to articulate feelings about a book that made you cry with its simple, quiet majesty, a book that now, every time you glance at it on your desk, makes you remember just how powerful story can be. Picture books are, I think, one of those spaces of the literary world where sometimes magic can be made in a way you do not quite understand but are so very grateful for it. Julian is a Mermaid is a dream, packed with magic in every achingly soft line and every gentle, soft note of love being acceptance and acceptance being love. Love. It’s maybe there that this book shines; Julian sees a mermaid at the pool, he wishes to be one, and I shall not spoil the payoff but I shall say that it is a payoff to hold to yourself like gold for a brief, beautiful moment, before sharing it with everybody that you know.

Julian Is A Mermaid is so quiet, so soft, so subtle, and yet so immense. It is a book about love. Julian is with his Nana; a woman built of curves and shape and lovely, lovely heart. The mermaids are three women he sees on the train. He wants to look as wonderful as they do. And, as the book progresses, he figures out how to do that.

This is a book about bodies so rarely depicted within picture books. We have this pearl-clutching fear, sometimes, that we must protect the children from something strange and indefinable without quite realising that we adults are the source of such fear. Children see the world in a particular way, and a good picture book embraces that. The world is strange, all of it, but it is also wonderful. Perfect. And bodies, sometimes, form part of that dialogue, shaped by gatekeepers more than the story, but Julian Is A Mermaid differs here. This book sings with bodies; beautiful, rich, wild bodies, all of them presented with this glorious sense of stillness and truth. They are what they are; they are so very wonderfully people living life in a culture of acceptability and love. The text is spare, beautiful, and the images are something rather wonderful: otherworldly, magical, and yet always within the grasp of a tiny child trying to realise his place in the world.

This is perfect, perfect stuff.



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You’re Not A Proper Pirate, Sidney Green! by Ruth Quayle and Deborah Allwright

You're Not a Proper Pirate, Sidney Green!

You’re Not a Proper Pirate, Sidney Green! by Ruth Quayle

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

You’re Not A Proper Pirate, Sidney Green! is a lot of fun. I can’t imagine things not looking up after a read of this. It really is genuine, exuberant, ‘drop it all at once and have an adventure’ fun. Written by Ruth Quayle, and illustrated by Deborah Allwright, it tells the story of Sidney Green and his dog Jemima who go on adventures – but, according to Captain Shipshape and his pirate crew, Sidney and Jemima should be more concerned with being a Proper Pirate. Right now!

I always think it’s a good sign if a picture book embraces rhythm. It’s so important to understand that these books are not about being just seen – they’re about being heard. You’re Not A Proper Pirate has some delightful refrains, but also some lovely use of repetition. It’s about using all the tricks of your trade to build readers and Quayle works her story to the max to do this. It’s great. It’s also a visual treat. Some of the spreads are busy, but there’s a nice internal logic to them. You can find and work out what’s happening, and much of the credit for that must go to Allwright. She handles a spread well, and the scenes where they go to space are lovely. (Pirates in space, yep). Finally, it’s worthwhile mentioning that – as ever with Nosy Crow – You’re Not A Proper Pirate depicts a wide range of skin colours and genders. This quiet representation is something Nosy Crow books really do excel at.

I do grant that there’s a leap to be made about accepting the presence of a pirate in your local neighbourhood, let alone one who’s concerned for the pirate education of the local youth, but make the leap. Come on. It’s better if you do. This isn’t about pirates at all; it’s rather about finding adventure and imagination in the everyday – and giving yourself permission to be part of that. It’s a great lesson to learn. It’s also a pretty damn great one for adults to be reminded of as well.

My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

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Aleph by Janik Coat

Aleph

Aleph by Janik Coat

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


A quirky twist on the ‘first words’ format for babies and toddlers and where others may stray toward the traditional and expected, Aleph embraces the deliciously surreal. The images are big, often falling off the page, with more than a hint of those thick felt-tip pens about them, and cover everything from a circle through to a toucan. Every now and then named characters- Popov, Romi, Cyrus and Aleph – appear for their own little moment, before disappearing again. It’s a weird lovely and kind of spectacular mixture of modernism, with a distinct hint of the old masters about it. There’s more than a touch of Matisse in Coat’s handling of line and colour for example.

What I loved about this is that there’s some sort of narrative coherency – a big thing to ask of a book of this nature – but there is. Chick goes to cat goes to car and then toucan. Words echo each other aurally or thematically or sequentially. It’s not consistent – bunny / cupcake / wolf – but then, in those sequences, shape or colour picks up the narrative bat. There’s a lot of care under the surface of this, and it shows. There’s also a lot of opportunity to extend the images in diverse directions – there’s a lovely page with a baby’s dummy on it, for example – which the list of words names as ‘shhh’ rather than ‘dummy’ or something along that line.

Aleph would be a literally perfect gift to a young reader, but it’s also got a substantial appeal to those interested in the power of illustration for this age-group. It uses a rather unusual neon tone throughout, giving the whole book this quality of being barely contained within the page. I loved it. It’s distinct, it’s unusual and it’s fun.

My thanks to the publisher for a review copy.

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Mary And Frankenstein by Linda Bailey and Júlia Sardà

Mary, Who Wrote FrankensteinMary and Frankenstein by Linda Bailey

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It has been a long time since I have read something so perfect as this, and if it doesn’t win the Kate Greenaway Medal this year, or at the very least make the shortlist, then I’ll hand in my badge. I’m not sure that I have an actual badge, so to speak, but I’m trying to work on a metaphor that tells you how great this book is and how blindingly, utterly, brilliant it does what it does, and so I’ll hope you’ll forgive me my delirium and go out and buy it straight away. Because it’s good. Honestly, it’s more than that. It’s perfect, and I’m delirious over it and I feel like I want to write a love letter to Andersen to say thank you for letting me take look at it (their edition is out in October 2018, it has the slightly different – and better – title of ‘Mary And Frankenstein’, and have I mentioned you should buy it?). This is a gift, this book, and here’s the part where I tell you why.

Written by Linda Bailey, Mary and Frankenstein explores the story of Mary Shelley. The daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft, the creator of modern science fiction, the girl who loved Percy Bysshe Shelley, the girl who lived, Mary Shelley is a fascinating and complex figure. And in the hands of somebody lesser, her story might have suffered. It might have been reduced to one of those hagiographies we see so often at the moment in children’s literature, and it might have been sidelined for the stories of those people she lived and loved with. But Bailey doesn’t. I knew we were in good hands when I read her author’s note and saw that she’d thanked an academic for critiquing the manuscript. This is everything, my friends, because it shows somebody who takes this seriously. It is a privilege to write these sorts of books, and it is a skill to write them well. Bailey does that. She does that so well. She has a clean, simple, and deeply restrained style that delivers such calmly beautiful lines as:

“Mary’s mother was a great thinker. She wrote books to say that women should have the same rights as men. She died when Mary was only eleven days old.

Can you miss someone you’ve never known?

Mary does”

Just, let that sink in a little. The great grace of that, the restraint of that. The way it gives you everything and manages to hold itself back from giving you too much. It’s brilliantly done. And it’s smartly done. It gives children a chance to find something else out on their own, to fill in the absence with their facts and stories, to look up into the sky and tell their own story. After all, “Writers dream stories, awake and asleep.”

It’s beautiful. And it’s even more beautiful when it’s paired with the incomparable artwork of Júlia Sardà. I’d encourage you to have a look at her website and this review about the process of illustrating this little gothic masterpiece, as her artwork here is almost incomparably done. It’s immense, it’s ferociously unique and particular, and it makes me breathless. Her use of line and colour is so wonderfully done, and she has this great gift of being able to centre her images and find the humanity of them (an apt skill when we consider the topic!). There’s a lot going in in this amazing book and yet, even as the wind whips the trees or as owls fly through the sky, your eye’s drawn to Mary. Her red hair, her white face, her story. She will be heard, she will be seen, she will be told.

Oh this book, I could write for days about it…

I will teach it in my classes, and I will hand it to those who tell me that children’s books are the easy options, and I will nominate it for the Kate Greenaway and I shall will it to win every award on the planet, because it’s outstanding. It’s one of the best picture books I’ve ever read.

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What Does An Anteater Eat? : Ross Collins

what does an anteater eatWhat Does An Anteater Eat? by Ross Collins

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Picture books are a performative thing. Every book is, in a sense, but picture books are perhaps more performative than others. They are made to be shared and talked about and enjoyed by multitudes of readers. They are made to be read aloud, to inspire funny voices, and to have their corners chewed on by babies who are figuring out this wide, wide world that they live in. I always think that it’s a good thing when you can feel this edge of performance to a picture book, where you can sense the parts you’d emphasise or the parts where you’d tease out the tension to that almost unbearable point, and I always think that it’s a good thing when you read a picture book and can hear the reaction that it would get.

What Does An Anteater Eat? is a book that’s full of that third space, that performative edge, that raw, hysterical laughter that really only little children can do and when they do it, the world laughs with them. And I felt that when I read this book, and that’s something quite remarkable. This is a relatively slender story; an anteater wakes up from a nap, is hungry, and tries to remember what he eats. He asks several other animals who provide both useful and useless answers, before happening upon an ants nest and – well, let’s just say that anteaters don’t actually eat what you think. There’s a nice little note in this about not judging on appearances, and Collins’ art is full of a vibrant, thick sense of colour. He’s an artist doing good things, and his characters sing with this sense of lovely honesty. This is lived art, primal and potent. I also do love a cover that sets itself apart from many of those on the shelves at the moment.

I’d have welcome a little more work being done with the lettering, as I always feel that simply shifting from text into italics is a relatively easy default to choose in a picture book and one which shies away from the added quality good lettering can provide, but that’s a small note for a book as potently performative as this.

My thanks to the publisher for a review copy.

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Wave : Suzy Lee

WaveWave by Suzy Lee

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a remarkable and show-stopping thing, let down only by the printing format itself. Lee’s art is a delicious joy, telling the story of a girl on a visit to the beach. It’s wordless throughout and delivered in a simple, clean palette of blacks and whites and blues, and it’s beautiful. You can see some pictures in this tweet and really, it’s the moments of this book that make it what it is. That sheer, wild pleasure of stamping in water; of teasing the edge with your toes before jumping fully into it; of being soaked, suddenly, beyond your imagination, before you can quite realise what’s happening. It is lovely and it’s very, deliciously primal. Wave is a book that speaks to that child that we all have inside of us, and I would pay quite happily to have prints of it on my wall. The vibrancy, the sheer truth of Lee’s art is inescapable.

As I said however, the book is let down by the printing and the relationship between the artwork and the gutter. The gutter is a pivotal space within picture books, providing as it does a space for innovative acts of storytelling but also for training children to understand the shape of books, and the pattern of reading itself.

In Wave, the gutter is too tightly bound or the dimensions of the artwork are off or something, because certain parts of the image get caught up in the gutter and lost or cut-off. The girl, for example, loses part of a limb at one point, whilst the delicious edge of the wave, with its kaleidoscopic edge of fragmented blue, is stopped bluntly by the gutter. I can see some point for that in some spreads, to emphasise the barrier between the girl and the wave – the distance – but in others, the gutter forms a heavy handed truncation of what might be a perfect, endless book.

Wave thus becomes a bit of an oddity, where the raw, distinct beauty of the book and its utterly perfect grasp of the ‘moment’ becomes tied back by this gutter problem, becomes bound by something heavy and solid and blunt. It is an undeniable recommendation nonetheless because Lee’s artwork is beautiful. Utterly, utterly beautiful.

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The Weaver : Qian Shi

The WeaverThe Weaver by Qian Shi

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There’s a lot to love in this debut picture book from Qian Shi, not in the least her fine and delicate artwork that sings of heart and love. The titular weaver is Stanley the spider who collects things and keeps them in his web. One day, his collection is washed away…

Where this book shines is in the artwork. There’s a sort of animated edge to Shi’s work, that roundness of line and that vibrancy of colour that makes many of these pages into something quite special. I’m always partial to a book that does something with endpapers, and even more partial with a book that does something good with endpapers, and these are subtle and wonderfully handled here. I’m also very fond of the balance here between double page spreads and multiple beats on the same page: this is a book which is almost filmic in its structure, with the storyboard of images and text working together so very nicely.

The story itself is simple, teaching children that they can hold onto the memory of something even when the thing itself is not there. There’s an obvious applicability towards grief and loss towards such a narrative, but this is also maybe a book to trot out when the favourite toy goes missing or when a big life change is about to occur. Shi’s text is sensitive, gently paced and restrained, knowing when to step back and let that fine and heartfelt artwork shine through. A charming, rather beautiful and rather evocative book.

My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

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Poo Bum : Stephanie Blake

Poo BumPoo Bum by Stephanie Blake

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I get books recommended to me a lot. Poo Bum has been on my ‘to read’ list for a while; but when a lovely librarian friend of mine told me that it got the “best reaction she’d ever had” at story time, it slid right to the top. Story time is one of those very specific tests for picture books and not all of them manage to pass it. Not all of them should pass it, in a way, because some picture books are made for very close and confidential shared reading, but those that do pass it are very special beasts. They’re books which translate to a very wide audience in a very short period of time. And they’re books which, when handled by a good librarian, help to make reading an event, a moment which burns very precisely and potently in the brain, and helps to pull young readers on a journey that’s going to last them a lifetime.

Poo Bum is outstanding. It’s wicked and naughty and just far enough past that edge of inappropriate to feel naughty, but not to far so that people get alienated. I’m loathe to give you too much details because really, the twists in this story are everything so I’ll settle with the blurb that simply says: “Once there was a little rabbit who could only say one thing…” As you’ll remember the title of this book is ‘Poo Bum’, you might imagine what that thing is…

The copy I’ve got from the library aches with being read a thousand times, and I love that so much that I can hardly deal with it. That’s another test for a picture book; the audience is still learning to figure out the idea of the book itself, and books that can survive that wear and tear whilst keeping the essence of themselves together, are very important things. Poo Bum is rendered in such potent artwork, and punchy text, that I suspect it would survive the apocalypse. The colours are bold, often primary, and often still have the tangible mark of creation on them; those lines and scratches that show you exactly where the pauses and edges were.

And oh, this is funny. It’s funny and it’s smart, and I can see exactly why it hit home. Turns out librarians know exactly what they’re on about. Who’d have thought?

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Moon : Britta Teckentrup

Moon: A Peek-Through Picture BookMoon: A Peek-Through Picture Book by Britta Teckentrup

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Have you ever wondered why the moon shines in the night-time sky?

There’s something to be said about the idea of grace in picture books. It’s an airy idea to grasp, particularly when rendered in the flatness of paper and print, but it’s something that, in the best picture boos, is most definitely present. Moon is very much that; it’s a delight. Airy, magical, and graceful , it moves around the world, tracing a series of night time scenes set under a silvery waxing, waning and full moon.

And it is graceful, because it’s such a restrained book. The palette is one of shadows, of muted and restricted colours, greens and blues and blacks, a landscape lit up under the light of the moon, and then a sudden flare of colour. There’s a scene that I love, amongst many, where the moon looks down at penguins, and there’s so much life on the page, that even though the palette is carefully, beautifully, modulated, the spread sings. Do you see what I mean about that idea of grace? The balance here between the pattern of the penguins, that downward shift of the land, and the remote, precise, glory of that slender moon. It’s an eloquent spread precisely because of that balance; so genuine, so gently done.

IMG_20170808_093553745

One of the other notable elements of this book is the use of cut outs. The moon itself  is a cut out space in the page which varies as you read through the book, ultimately moving through a full lunar cycle. It’s subtle work, and manages to move the book into something where you don’t just turn the pages, you go back and forth, loooking at the moon that was and the moon that shall be. I get fulsome about books like this (I know, surprise!) but that’s because they do what they do so well and picture books build readers, and this book burns to be read under the light of a full moon at bedtime.

IMG_20170808_093616002

This edition is due out on September 7th, and I’m telling you about it now because I think it’s one to get on pre-order, and into your budgetary / lesson / teaching plans. I also think it would be an utter delight for anyone going on a camping holiday, or anybody who’s a little bit afraid of the dark. Where Moon shines (badumtish) is in how it creates this sense of connection; the moon itself may appear slightly differently to everyone but it is the same moon. We’re all on the same planet and oh, isn’t it beautiful.

IMG_20170808_093538789 (1)

My thanks to Little Tiger for the review copy. Yes, I screamed a little over-excitedly when I got it.

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I Dare You : Reece Wykes

I Dare YouI Dare You by Reece Wykes

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It’s been a while since I’ve reviewed a picture book and honestly? I get a little twitchy when I’m away from them. I get a little nervous, as though a part of me is missing and it’s a part that can only be completed by delightful endpapers and books that give you the world in a handful of words. Picture books are the buttress of our literacies and they make us who we are.

And I Dare You by Reece Wykes is rather, utterly gorgeous. It’s the tale of two bored gorillas playing a game of dares. The game starts in relatively innocuous circumstances before slowly building up as the dares became even more and more outrageous until the final dare – one which I won’t spoil for you here -is posed. It’s a beautiful and wonderfully handled moment that spirals off into somewhere delightfully suggestive in the final endpapers. (A brief note: books that give different front and back endpapers, that little bit behind the cover and before the ‘story’ itself, are perfect. These are immense spaces and Wykes uses them quite perfectly).

There’s a lot to love about this dry, dark, funny book and it comes from both the text and the imagery – as all good picture books should. Textually; there’s a dominant motif of ‘I DARE YOU…’ which begs for the exuberant chant of storytime. There’s also a useful point to be made in I Dare You about the risks of taking dares too seriously and though it’s not explicitly made (thank God), the lesson is very much there. This is one to have around to prompt conversation and to consider; and that’s something very important indeed.

Where I Dare You also shines is in the vibrancy of the art work; it’s a nicely restricted palette of muted greens and the blankness of the page that lets the colour of the two gorillas – blue and orange – sing in cntrast. The gorillas, though, my goodness. Great stylised, suggestive lines – the fluidity of their arms – as they slide subtly into greater and more outlandish dares, always subtly catching each other’s eyes and making sure that they’re noticed. Cleverness isn’t easy in picture books; quiet cleverness is even harder. These gorillas sing with skill. This book is such an unexpected, offbeat joy and the ending is perfect. It’s a lot to ask to pack so much into so little and yet I Dare You does it with spades. And Gorillas.

My thanks to the publisher for a review copy.

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Pigeon P.I : Meg McLaren

Pigeon P.I.Pigeon P.I. by Meg McLaren

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When it comes to picture books, I always, always have to talk about the complexity of them. They are hard beasts to get right, they are even harder beasts to do well. Pigeon P.I is something quite oddly wonderful, a sort of mashup of gumshoe detective drama with a lot of bird puns and something quite delightful in the process. Forgive me for simply reciting the blurb in whole but I think it does the business better than anything I can

CASE No. 621 – Feathered friends are going missing all over town, but private investigator Murray likes the quiet life … until a little bird tells him a story the famous Pigeon P.I cannot ignore.

There’s such a lot to enjoy in this book from the wry beginning of “Business was slow / just the way I liked it” through to the exuberant flurry of detail that dots nearly every page and in substantial amounts. Some of the more specific puns may require explaining (“Privet Eye – Gardening Solutions”) but it’s a delight to pick them out and this is a book that will sing with repeated reading (“Two beaks are better than one”). As Murray starts to work his way through the case, he comes into contact with a range of individuals – plucky canaries, furtive pigeons, and the reveal of the eventual kingpin is a delight. It’s a soaring, intense, bold double spread and one that stamps the book with such a moment that you can’t help but stop and drink it in.

I’d definitely place this a little towards the older edge of picture books, somewhere around Elys Dolan and Sarah Bee because of the dense detail and puns. It’s such a smart and witty book, and it’s one that gives different endpapers! Endpapers are so important! The reader gets a guide to investigation at the start of the book – take quiet snacks, and not ‘quiet but impractical’ snacks such as jelly; whilst the end of the book has tips on advanced detection featuring Duck Tracy and Sherstork Holmes. A delight. A bold, mad, glorious delight.

My thanks to the publisher for a review copy.

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Wild Animals of the North : Dieter Braun

Wild Animals of the NorthWild Animals of the North by Dieter Braun

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The latest step on my Carnegie / Kate Greenaway catch up is Wild Animals of the North by Dieter Braun. Genuinely a little bit breathtaking, this is something rather special.The conceit is simple and easy to grasp: Braun lists a selection of the wild animals to be found across a series of regions in The North. This can cover anything from killer whales in the Arctic through to pandas in Asia. And, as I said, it is something.

It’s hard to quite do justice to Braun’s big, bare, stylish artwork so instead I’ll direct you to a gallery of images. This is remarkable work, genuinely. One of the big points about this book is its size. It’s maybe a little difficult to wield for tinier hands, but that gamble pays off as it allows the artwork to breathe. There’s something rather special about just going big and bare with your work and it’s a gamble that pays off. Some of the images are genuinely breathtaking. All of them would be perfect as pictures on the wall.

Each image of an animal is labelled both with its English and Latin names. Some of them come with extra paragraphs of information, a little eccentrically formed, but still rather charming. What gives this book its strength is that sense of individuality about it. The weight of the paper. The texture of that front cover. The nuanced picking of detail in those paragraphs. I learnt things! (Learning things from a book – who’d imagine such a thing?!)

I loved this. It’s inspiring, distinct and fiercely unique work.

And I want pretty much all of it on my wall.

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Everything else

Picture books, art, and the appreciation of things

I have a passion project. Thanks to Facebook, and my inability to hold onto a USB stick for more than thirty second without losing it, I have started to gather an album of picture book images. The curation method for these is simple, eccentric. I have to like it. I have to be able to talk about it.

(How curious it is that books are one thing when read privately, selfishly, but quite another when we talk about them.)

I did a talk the other day to some local sixth formers about life as a researcher, doing this. Books. Literacy. Trying to understand one of the most global, primal experiences.  Reading. Communication. Everything builds from books, I said, everything.

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More Katie Morag Island Stories : Mairi Hedderwick

I described research:

Asking why. Asking, always, asking why things are the way they are and what can we do to affect, address, challenge, question that.

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Cloudland by John Burningham

And I showed them Art.
Capital A, capital ART.

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Madeline in London : Ludwig Bemmelmans

Picture books are something which we treat, sometimes, too lightly.

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Five Senses : Herve Tullet

We’re driven by our sense of adulthood. Age based imperialism. A sense that we know better, that we shouldn’t be reading these things.

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A Brush with the Past: 1900 – 1950 The Years that changed our lives : Shirley Hughes

So sometimes, I asked them to just look at things.

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Refuge – Anne Booth & Sam Usher

Because looking – seeing – is where it all begins.

All of it.

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A Taste of Chlorine – Bastine Vivés

Us.

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Book Reviews

Horrible Bear! : Ame Dyckman & Zachariah OHora


Horrible Bear!Horrible Bear!
by Ame Dyckman

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There’s a lot to love about this vibrant and carefully pitched picture book. Horrible Bear! is the story of a girl who is out flying her kite one day. The string snaps and the kite falls into the cave of a very big and very sleepy bear. He’s asleep and, awfully, manages to roll over on top of her kite and crunch it. The little girl loses her temper and yells: “HORRIBLE BEAR!” She stomps home in that delightful full-body stomp of anger that small people do, and the bear is left to come to terms with what’s just happened. Naturally, he’s a bit upset as well and decides he’s going to be a HORRIBLE BEAR! Just as he’s leaving the cave and coming down the mountain to roar at the girl, the girl manages to break her beloved toy. Upon realising how horrible she’s been, she apologises to the bear who promptly helps her put her toy back together. Adorable, no? It’s a very charming and lovable story full with some pertinent and gently told messages.

When it comes to picture books, everything matters. Everything. There were two words that glared a little for me from the text because they didn’t feel quite as universal as I’d have liked. I know, I know, I can hear you commenting on how picky that is and it is a picky comment. But it’s a comment that comes from the nature of picture books and my love for them and my want for them to reach out to a whole world of readers and to do that with a whole fistful of meaning and weight in each and every word. There’s nowhere to hide in a picture book and it’s right to acknowledge the slight down notes in an otherwise wonderful book because everyone gets better, always, and Dyckman and OHara are rather wonderful already. The dynamic art of HORRIBLE BEAR! is testament to that, as is that subtly written note of regret on the part of the girl. It’s easy to judge in books like this, to get all high-handed and moralistic, but Dyckman reins it back. Her language is precise, kind and subtle. It’s a great line to walk and one that speaks of a great understanding of children and of learning.

Where HORRIBLE BEAR! absolutely shines is in its use of detail. This isn’t a story that forgets what’s happened to concentrate on the next page. It begins on the title page, where underneath the dedications from author and illustrator, a small girl with vibrant red hair sees the string on her kite snap. And then we’re in, pounding through a story where the bear sleeps with a little tiny teddy bear of his own, and when the girl gets back into her bedroom, we can see the bear coming out of his cave up the mountain through the window in her room. It’s so utterly lovely and smart that I can get picky with this book. I can get picky because it’s so vividly on point at certain moments that I want all of it to be up there, reaching the great heights of storytelling that it has the potential to do. This is vivid, exuberant, eccentric, and kind work. HORRIBLE BEAR! is rather wonderful. Just don’t forget that exclamation mark!

My thanks to Andersen for a review copy.

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The Journey : Francesca Sanna

The JourneyThe Journey by Francesca Sanna

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Journey is something rather special and painfully beautiful; it’s a picture book which retells the journey of a nameless family of refugees. Told in a mixture of calm double page spreads, and singular pages, the family have to leave their home after the war begins. They set off on a journey to “another country. A country far away with high mountains”; and it is a journey that has to go on without a member of the family. (I shall not spoil what happens to this member, suffice to say that it delivers one of the most poetic, restrained and pained double page spreads I have seen for a long while). The book ends on an unfixed note; the family are still traveling and the narrator sees some birds up above: “I hope, one day, like these birds, we will find a new home. / A home where we can be safe and begin our story again.” In an echo of these words, the final endpaper sees a birds eye view of a red train cutting through the landscape of an unknown country populated by trees and with mountains in the distance.

This book is endorsed by Amnesty International and it’s not hard to see why. The Journey treats its topic with a sensitive restraint and, through refusing to name either the countries involved or the people, invests the narrative with a pained every man quality. Sanna’s work here is vivid, quiet and subtle. It’s work that I suspect is for the slightly older edge of picture book readers and that’s simply due to the layering at work here. There’s so much going on in these wonderful, poetic, nuanced images. It’s Miyazaki meets The Last Unicorn meets an Aubusson tapestry meets a nightmare. Hard to describe, yet unforgettable.

There’s a dark edge to the aesthetic: scenes of familial bliss are edged by the dark edge of something threatening, whilst, in one of the most heart-rending scenes, the children sleep in their mother’s arms whilst she silently weeps into the night. As the text says, the children are unaware of this: “But mother is with us / and she is never scared. / We close our eyes and / finally fall asleep.” It is rare and brilliant work, this, and The Journey is something wonderful to end the year with this book. It is rather special and I hope a future classic.

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The Riddlemaster : Kevin Crossley-Holland & Stéphane Jorisch

The RiddlemasterThe Riddlemaster by Kevin Crossley-Holland

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I was intrigued to receive this review copy from the publisher; Kevin Crossley-Holland is an author I’ve had a strange relationship with. I admire his writing, greatly, yet often feel quite distanced from it when reading. When spoken though, or performed, I would wed it in a heartbeat. Language is strange like that, it shifts depending on the space it is. This is how I write here, tentatively, reaching my way into this review, but speaking – ? No. Difference. Form, space – content. Language shifts; writing is not speaking, speaking is not writing, but then sometimes, writing is all things and all things are writing. A world of contradiction caught in a few quick dashes on the paper, and held as tight as a kite string in a wicked Autumn storm.

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“I’ve got a riddle,” spat Wildcat.

The Riddlemaster holds the key to a marvellous island, full of treasure. In order to get to the island, Anouk, Ben and Cara must solve seven riddles. If they don’t solve them, they face the grim fate of being eaten by the animals on the boat; “Beast, and Wildcat, and Wolf, the three Bears, and Dragon / surrounded the three children. They licked their lips.” The children manage to solve the riddles and eventually arrive on an island full of stories: “So now you’re ready to meet the islanders and they’re all / waiting to share their stories with you. Anansi and Anne of Green Gables, Ali Baba and Arthur ….” The final scene sees the children racing excitedly onto a island full of books, and the land scored with letters from the alphabet.

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“Again Wolf, and Wildcat, and the three Bears, and Beast, and Dragon pressed round the three children. They licked their lips and bared their teeth.”

Though I found a few of the moments between the pages jarring (a book like this lives on rhythm and sometimes that rhythm skipped) and would have happily pared down several paragraphs, there is much to enjoy in The Riddlemaster. It’s a paean to stories and libraries and I see some substantial opportunities for related play and activities with it. I also applaud the way it flirts quite happily with disaster; the children are almost eaten several times when they almost can’t quite figure out the riddle in time. Crossley-Holland’s skill in strong, powerful language remains deeply pronounced and rather lovely: “Cara blew out her cheeks like a teapot” and “The boat’s mast was a soaring word-tree. It had thousands and thousands of leaves and each fluttering leaf had one word painted on it.”

Where this book absolutely sings is in Stéphane Jorisch’s illustrations. Jorisch gives us a tapestry of almost medieval characters; those twisting, fanciful half-dreamt, half-believed outlines of animals and characters that twist into each other and curve around the page. His children are perfect; three distinct, diverse characters, and they’re each rendered with such movement that they’re a delight. These thin washes of colour, dark and light, thin and fat, balance deliciously against the white background of the page, and it’s a delight. I want a wordless picturebook from Jorisch because there’s so much in his work; the question of a line, the expression of doubt in his finger. It’s the artwork that pulls this book together for me; great dreamy, fantastical washes, and movement filled lines. I need to find out more about Jorisch.

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Nara and the Island : Dan Ungureanu

Nara and the IslandNara and the Island by Dan Ungureanu

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Think of a bright blue sky. Think of a blue that’s so dense you could almost walk on it. Think of a sky that’s so full of this thick, dense blue that there’s no clouds, nothing else but this blue. Think of a sky that’s so blue that it almost scalds your eyes; an August blue, a seaside blue, a picnic in the park blue.

Now think of a different sort of blue. Think of this blue in a sky that’s whipped with wind and mist. Maybe this is a winter blue, thin and tense, as though it knows it shouldn’t be there at all. Maybe you can’t even think of this blue sky for long without it reverting to grey and black clouds, thick with rain and snow. Think of this blue, this mist-soaked blue, this almost gone blue.

That’s saturation. Colours of the same spectrum and yet, so different in density that they’re saying totally different things. The red of a Harry Potter spine, the red of a blush. The thickness of colour. The language of colour, really, is what I’m inching towards. The semiotics of shade.

FILE0118.JPGColour says a lot. More, sometimes, than anything else on the page. It can be used as a focal point, a hey, look-here vibrant tint of blue against a white expanse, or it can obliterate the detail that shouldn’t be seen. Make you blind, make you see. Make you read a story much more than that which the words hint at. And that’s the thing about picture books, that’s what they should do. They’re a dance between text and image, a dance that’s performed in the arena of the page and book, a pas de deux of story.

And sometimes that dance is done well, sometimes it’s an arabesque of such perfection that you could just sit and watch it a thousand times. Sometimes it’s not, and the fouette that you want from the book, the fouette that you know it can give, is nothing but an awkward limp across a few tense and uncomfortable pages.

Nara and the Island by Dan Ungureanu is an arabesque. It’s an arabesque precisely because of his approach to colour and the lyrical way in which its used. This fableistic, quiet tale is set on one island with Nara and her father, and one day they set out to “the other island”. Dad’s rationale for this is clear: their boat is now fixed, and fixed boats call for adventure. They are going to find “the big fish” and whilst he rows around the other island, Nara is allowed to explore the shore. In doing so, she comes across the island’s greatest secret, namely Aran – a friend of her own age. The final scene sees the two of them hand in hand sharing Aran’s favourite place in the island.FILE0119.JPG

I talk about colour with this book because it’s what struck me the most about it; big pale washes, almost old-fashioned in tone, but rather deeply evocative and noteably handled. This is dream-colour; hazy-edged frames, white space, shadows and moments that echo back to that great wilderness explored in Where the Wild Things Are. And I loved it.

It’s an unfinished story, open-ended, vividly romantic, and again it made me think of fables and of parables, because we don’t know what happens. We have story that can be completed in a thousand ways or, not completed at all, and it’s only the little understated note in the endpapers that gives a hint of what might happen. Give me clever endpapers that use their space, that pull their weight, and I am happy, I truly am.

A book of rhythms, of echoes; of names that pattern each other, Aran and Nara, and the urge to find something that is your own. The commonalities of difference. Nara’s island is “a little small and quiet, where it’s hard to find a hideaway” whilst Aran’s is “noisy and wild, he’s always trying to find a bit that’s just his.” There’s something deliciously empathetic underpinning this book, a sense of togetheness despite difference, and again, I come back to that use of colour, that underpinning thread throughout Nara and The Island. Because that’s the other thing about saturation and tone and colour. It brings things together. It’s a story note that sounds even when we don’t want to hear it, even when we don’t know it’s there.

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All aboard the Bobo Road : Stephen Davies & Christopher Corr

All Aboard for the Bobo RoadAll Aboard for the Bobo Road by Stephen Davies

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It’s been too long since I reviewed a picture book, and so I am indebted to Andersen Press for this review copy of ‘All aboard for the Bobo Road’. Written from the author’s own experience of life in Burkina Faso, this is a vibrant and rather appealing picture book that tells the story of the bus journey along the road to Bobo. Driven by Big Ali, with his children Fatima and Galo on the roof, the bus picks up a host of passengers on its way and passes through real places in Burkina Faso: Lake Tengrela, the ‘hippo lake’; Karfiguela Falls, the Domes of Fabedougou and several other sites, illustrated in lovingly rich and warm detail by Christopher Corr. This is a book of colour; of thickly saturated yellows and golds and oranges; searing greens and vibrant blues. I particularly loved Corr’s horizons; great double page spreads of rich blue-green; shadowy palm outlines; tumultous green-edged rainforests with the ever present sun beaming out behind the trees. Pages need ending and finishing and Corr does this so well.

FILE0106.JPGThere’s something rather deliciously welcome about All Aboard For The Bobo Road. I intensely welcome and actively embrace books that detail the lives of other cultures; far too often, picture books tread a similar path and whilst many of them deliver brilliant and nuanced things in that treading, it is a path that should never be treated as the sole and definitive route. A particular joy about All Aboard For The Bobo Road is its linkage to real world sites, turning this book into something that straddles the borders of fiction and non-fiction. There’s a wide world here in this book and it’s something that could inspire a lot of craft and activity around it; bus journeys of your own, counting games on the train with people and luggage, making a map of your local area, and so on.

FILE0101.JPGHidden away in Davies’ exuberant and rythmically pleasing narrative of the journey is a counting tale; we are asked to count the different items placed on the bus ranging from watermelons to mopeds (and yes, the amount of the items specified in the illustrations do tally with the text; some slightly picky reviewers, naming no names, do check this sort of thing), and I do love a book with a healthy aural refrain. A picture book lives in two spaces; the visual and the aural, and this has a lovely repeating motif of “Beep, Beep! They’re off again!” All Aboard The Bobo Road is such a bright, delicious thing. I rather like it.

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The Adventures of Beekle – The Unimaginary Friend : Dan Santat

The Adventures of Beekle: The Unimaginary FriendThe Adventures of Beekle: The Unimaginary Friend by Dan Santat

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Picture books are complex, complex spaces that speak of something quite vibrant and distinct when they’re done right. They’re slim, ineffably potent things that tell story as though it is pared from their very heart; each word laden with a value that, through their sparing usage, becomes magic. Writing a picture book is easy. Writing a good one is hard.

The Adventures of Beekle : The Unimaginary Friend is something quite defiantly different. Pages read like Monsters Inc. meets The Yellow Submarine meets Where The Wild Things Are. I keep returning to that idea of defiance when I look at this book; those images that push right the way to the page edge, those double page spreads of dark, starlit nights, followed by double spreads of bright, airy yellow, devestating in its simplicity. Colour defines this book; wild and exuberant colour that wraps its way around sea-dragons and the urban darkness of the city marked by the defiant present of a vibrant blue-green imaginary friend in the corner. It is a book that is barely held within its pages, and there’s something rather delicious about that to me. From Shirley Hughes’ divine Alfie Steps In through to Sarah Bee and Satoshi Kitamura’s The Yes, I will always love books that make themselves a space in the world that is so very resolutely their own.

The Adventures of Beekle achieves that individuality both visually and also in its story; the tale of an unnamed individual and his search for his friend. Every imaginary friend has a special child who gives them their special name. The only problem is that his hasn’t turned up yet, and so he decides to set off and find her. Referred to throughout as ‘he’ and ‘his’, it is only upon meeting Alice, his friend, that this changes. She christens him as Beekle and the two of them become “perfect together”. Idyllic scenes follow, where Alice and Beekle have fun together to the tangible bafflement of onlookers, make friends with others, before finally sailing off into the distance all together, where: “they did the unimaginable.”

There’s some longer words here, and the ideas of negatives, that will maybe take a moment or two to work out together, but I tell you that with the caveat that this book is a grower. It’s one to root in the library or the bedroom and let it grow; let the story spill out and colonise the world around it. Some of the spreads are utterly delicious things, wild and characterful juxtapositions of light and dark, but always, always just on the not scary side of weird. It’s a fine art to have achieved such here, and Beekle does it in spades. I keep looking at the illustrations and finding something new, from the Super Mario-esque clouds through to the diverse characters, through to Beekle’s crown is held together by masking tape. This fervent tribute to the imagination, and to the power of stories and creativity, is a genuine delight and madly, madly moving at points. Small but mighty things happen in the best of picture books. I suspect this is one such beast.

My thanks to Andersen for the review copy.

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The Vasa Piglet : Björn Bergenholtz

 

Vasa Piglet : Front Cover
Vasa Piglet : Front Cover

The Vasa Piglet by Björn Bergenholtz
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’m distinctly conscious that the books I review tend to fit a particular canon of authors, style and language. Whilst some of that is perfectly understandable and self-explanatory (*cough*bit of a fan of the school story *cough cough*), there’s a point where those canonical edges should be challenged and reshaped. Reading out of ones remit, as it were.

This is something I’d always encourage readers and people who work with readers to try and support. Boundaries are made when we become comfortable in our reading. It is always worthwhile to test the nature of those boundaries to realise the points where they are thin and poorly made. Enable difference, divergence. Turn left instead of right. Put away all the fiction books and just have non fiction on display. Talk about reading and choices. Let the child dictate to you what both of you read. Read together, read apart. Read differently. Publishers like Pushkin Press and Big Picture Press are catching my eye a lot for their titles which facilitate this bold and adventurous approach towards children’s literature, fictional and otherwise. Let me know of any others you recommend?

The Vasa Piglet
The Vasa Piglet : internal image

Today’s review is of a gorgeous little picture book from Stockholm. The titular Vasa Piglet is Piglet Lindbom who has been taken from his home and put on the royal warship Vasa, about to launch from Stockholm harbour. Piglet Lindbom realises quite quickly that he’s destined to be eaten and must escape. As he tries to figure out his escape, he hides down below in the shadows before climbing up the mast and hiding in the nest. All the while, the ship is taking on its supplies and preparing to set sail….

The Vasa Piglet is based on true events. The Vasa was a real boat and you can find out what happened to her here (spoilers!). The book itself has been fact checked by the Vasa Museum in Stockholm. Whilst I’m no historian, the images present what feels like a realistic portrayal of life in Stockholm at the time (and the endpapers in particular neatly bring the story into the present day).

Vasa Piglet : Looking down onto the ship
Vasa Piglet : Looking down onto the ship

The text has a distinct charm despite certain points of it being somewhat stiffly rendered in the translation that I read. I loved the moments where Piglet Lindbom climbed up the rigging “forgetting that pigs can’t climb rigs” and gets given grief from a seagull “Copy me. Fly!”. Piglet Lindbom’s world weary respone is to think: “Seagulls don’t know much about pigs.”

Visually, The Vasa Piglet is charmingly distinct and quite avant-garde at times. Certain images cover several moments at once, imbuing the page with a level of dynamism and direction as well as making the reader actively engage with the visuals present.

There’s a romantic twist to some of the spreads as well. One key example of this is the cover, where Piglet Lindbom sits at the top of the mast and stares out into the blue ink sky, dotted with stars. The visual clues of this are fairly emphatic in nature : Piglet Lindbom will survive as he’s looking forward into the future and not being chased by an angry / hungry chef. The tension of this book doesn’t exist in that moment. Rather, it exists in the machinations behind that moment. How will Piglet Lindbom escape the Vasa? What happens, to those of us who do not know of the Vasa (and I was one!), is quite the surprise…. (I’m trying to not spoiler the ending, but that last sentence is hideous – forgive me!). In essence The Vasa Piglet has its faults but as a whole delivers an unusual, somewhat eccentric and oddly charming experience.

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One thousand things : Anna Kövecses

One Thousand Things: learn your first words with Little MouseOne Thousand Things: learn your first words with Little Mouse by Anna Kovecses
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There’s a lot to love about this vibrantly produced and character filled vocabulary builder. We follow Little Mouse through a range of different spread and scenes designed to increase vocabulary in a variety of contexts: colours, seasons, body parts, vegetables, weather and many more.

Anna Kövecses artwork is rich and stimulating. There’s a retro tone to it, creams coupled with characters that look like they’ve been cut out and stuck in. There’s hints of decoupage but also those vibrant moments of imaginative expression where a triangle becomes a boat sail or a rectangle becomes a nose. I welcome also Kövecses’ usage of diverse characters and settings and would have welcomed more of these spreads. There is a truth in reflecting the world in a book like this.

Certain of the spreads jarred a little for me; there’s a shift in perspectives from straight on through to top down on some spreads that took me a moment or two to figure out, and in other spreads,the labelling text for the element doesn’t fit quite onto the element itself. I’m thinking in particular of the ‘vegetables’ and the ‘what can you do outside’ spread in particular for these two examples. These moments diverted me from the intense poetry and fluidity of these pages and whilst I’m intensely conscious of the fact that such a response is couched in my personal context, I’m conscious that books like this develop vocabulary but also visual literacies. And in a book that is as genuinely beautiful and rich as this, it’s hard for me to ignore such stutters. I’d have also welcomed some utilisation of the endpapers; exploiting areas like these help children to develop their literacies around the book and the space of the book itself.

I am picky about One Thousand Things for one very simple reason. It is something that is really rather good, vividly unique and evocative, and I can see the space where it can fly into something quite shatteringly brilliant.

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Olivia and the Fairy Princesses : Ian Falconer

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This is Olivia. Olivia is awesome. This book is awesome. I shall be using awesome quite a lot throughout this review, so I just wanted to warn you in advance.

I want you to take a moment and think about every signal that that front cover is giving you about how it wants to be read. About how it should be read, really, it’s more than want somehow. I want you to think about the colours used. I want you to think about the fact that there is only a title. I want you to think about the size of that title and of the shift of fonts. I want you to read it out loud and try to read that title as the fonts and the size and the placement is asking you to read it. Everything on a perfect cover like this is done for a reason. Everything. And there is everything on this cover and it is just being given to you on a plate.

Olivia first page
Olivia first page

And then we have this. What I want you to take from this page (apart from sheer genuine delight at how perfect a picture book can be and how it can say so much with one single page) is the idea of placement. This is a fairly well sized book. There’s a lot of page. And here we have Olivia, slap bang in the middle of the first page, right in the centre of your eyeline and she is suffering from the weight of the world (embodied by this heavy and close text, right above her) and it is awesome. It is a page that is just perfect and every time I look at it, I crack up. Genuinely. (And if you’re interested more about placement and white space, go and have a look at what I thought of ‘Ellen and Penguin’ by Clara Vulliamy which is a divine example of such a thing).

So. We have a book that in two short moments (for we must always include the front cover in such a consideration) has given us everything. It’s given us Olivia; a pig who is so glorious that her character spills from every line drawn. She is exuberant. Vivid. And she is, as that title has told us, quite definitely a star.

This book is full of transcendent moments. I won’t spoil the plot (because really, the beats of Falconer’s storytelling are something quite delightful and that should be experienced first hand). I will, however, leave you with some more moments.

And the word awesome.

Because this book really is.

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God I love this book.

You can view all the other picture books in depth posts here (and that tag also includes my a-z of picture book terminology – all the things I think about when I review a picture book).

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Everything else Theory

An A-Z of Picture Book Terminology

I’ve been thinking about these posts from Sarah McIntyre and how I work with picture books.

I could talk, quite happily about picture books all day and I’m very conscious that when I start going on about recto and verso and page turns and white space that it’s a language quite foreign to many. So, in an effort to address that – here we are. I’ve had a go at putting down an A-Z of picture book terminology. It’s not exhaustive, nor is it perfect, but it is a reflection of all the things I think about when I’m looking at picture books. It is, perhaps, a conversation starter. Please feel free to adapt and utilise if you think it’s of use for yourself and your purposes (ps – I’d be v interested to hear if you do use it!).

Have a look at the #picturesmeanbusiness tag on Twitter for more about this campaign.

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Bernard : Rob Jones

Bernard Front Cover
Bernard Front Cover

The debut title from Beast In Show Books, this picture book promises great things. Written and illustrated by Rob Jones, it tells the story of Bernard a ‘misunderstood wild hound’ who just wants to eat strawberry jam.

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#kidbkgrp recap : Picture Books

Last night #kidbkgrp (and lots of lovely new Tweeters – welcome!) met to chat about picture books. Picture books are one of my great literary loves and so basically I spent the chat going “YES!” at every title suggested. There are a *lot* of lovely books recommended in this chat so it’s definitely worth having a look at it. (And perhaps one day I’ll be able to spell recommendations…).

You can find the storify of the chat here and here’s a link to the previous chats.

The next chat is on December 4th and we talk about Christmas!. See you there 🙂

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Book Reviews

TiN : Chris Judge

TiN front cover
figure one: TiN front cover with unintentional moody lighting

A book which give me good endpapers is basically my literary equivalent of “You had me at hello.” Good endpapers are a mark of clever work, work that revels in the nature of what it is and knows how to fully utilise that space. I mean, picture books are books that, perhaps more than most, have space to play in. You can do so much here. So much.

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Book Reviews

Chicken Clicking : Jeanne Willis & Tony Ross

sdfsd
Front Cover

Chicken Clicking is a picture book from the amazing pairing of Jeanne Willis and Tony Ross. The back catalogue of these two authors is a solidly joyous thing, so I was very pleased to receive this from Andersen Press for review. It’s a joy, really. I like wallowing in picture books. I like it when they’re provacative and clever and funny. I liked this. May I tell you why and how?

DCIM100MEDIA
Fig 1: “Once there was a little chick / Chirpy, chirpy, cheep.”

DCIM100MEDIA
Fig 2: “The third night came and just the same / The chicken went online.” “She ordered scooters for all the sheep / and skates for all the swine”

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Book Reviews

The Paper Dolls – Julia Donaldson and Rebecca Cobb

The Paper DollsThe Paper Dolls by Julia Donaldson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Julia Donaldson’s one of the big names of picture books, and I was excited to see The Paper Dolls where she teams up with the estimable Rebecca Cobb. If you don’t know Cobb’s work, it’s lovely. I’m a big fan of her style and I’m a bit of a Cobb kick at the moment following the perfect pain of Missing Mummy.

It’s a simple, rhythmic book with a beautiful aural texture to it. This is a book that demands to be read out loud, to be heard and savoured. Stylistically it reminded me a lot of John Burningham’s Cloudland; there’s that similar cut out and textural feel to the pictures that feels very human. And as I write that, I’m intrigued that my first thoughts around this book centre around thoughts of texture and of tangibility, and I think that’s something The Paper Dolls plays with quite intriguingly. The titular paper dolls (“Ticky and Tacky / and Jackie the Backie / and Jim with two noses / and Jo with the Bow”) subtly change and shift over each page, interacting and reacting to their landscapes. This is beautifully done and so quietly done – it’s almost Toy Story-esque in how the toys come alive when they’re not being watched. Cobb’s paper dolls do the exact same thing, and they don’t do too much of it either. There’s a restraint in her artwork that’s beautiful to see. Like I’ve said before, I’m a fan of Cobb’s work and the glorious subtlety of it.

The story itself is lovely and actually features an intensely moving moment where the Paper Dolls are cut up but this doesn’t stop them from existing. There’s still “Ticky and Tacky / and Jackie the Backie / and Jim with two noses / and Jo with the Bow” and they don’t stop from being, even though one of them is nothing but paper snow: “We’re not gone, Oh no no no! / We’re holding hands and we don’t let go. We’re Ticky and Tacky and Jackie the Backie / And Jim with two noses and Jo with the bow!”. I love that and I’m intrigued at how it’s very quietly teaching notions of longevity and of memory.

Talking of memory, this is the big shift at the end of the book because this is where the paper dolls end up existing after the whole Cutting Up Incident. It’s lovely, though I wonder if conceptually it’s a big leap to make for a juvenile audience. I think this is something which may become clearer after rereadings and through sharing discussions about the book. What I do love, however, is how this comes across to the adult and more older reader – there’s an ache of longing in reading the spread, and I do think that The Paper Dolls may have some really interesting applications in therapeutic contexts. This is a picture book to dwell on and to savour.

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Book Reviews

Claude on the Slopes : Alex T Smith

Claude on the SlopesClaude on the Slopes by Alex T Smith

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I adore these books, I truly do. The witty, warm illustrations coupled with a mischievous dog and his best friend – Sir Bobblysock – combine to make beautiful books. Claude on the Slopes is no exception.

I love the round richness of the illustrations. I love that people have breasts and bellies. I love that the library has a book called “Peter Pan’s People”. I love that Sidney Snood and his fabulous moustache exists. I love that Claude and Sir Bobblysock are back from their adventure before the grown ups get back in from work. I love the illustrations (I would buy a print of every single page) and I love how I am overusing the word love in this review and I love that I don’t care!

There is a part of me that wants these books to be mandatory, to have them given out to everyone and sung out about on street corners by people using their OUTDOOR VOICES. There is such joy inherent in each and every page. Claude is perfection and perfection is Claude. There’s really very little else to say.

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Book Reviews

Missing Mummy – Rebecca Cobb

Missing MummyMissing Mummy by Rebecca Cobb

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Books about bereavement are a big interest to me and I collate ones that I come across in a reading list. I am such a fan of Rebecca Cobb’s work and this book is beautiful.One of the things I think Cobb does really well is that she understands a child’s viewpoint. It’s a book written from the viewpoint of a bereaved child who is trying to understand where Mummy has gone: “Some time ago we said goodbye to Mummy. / I am not sure where she has gone”. There’s so much there in that simple, precise statement. The totality of bereavement is overwhelming to an adult but to a child who is still learning to process concepts such as life and death, it can be blindingly unfathomable. Cobb’s sparse simple text captures that confusion but also that ache of trying to reason out what has happened: “We have been leaving her flowers / But she doesn’t seem to have been collecting them”

Space is another thing that Cobb plays with to stunning effect throughout Missing Mummy. Some of the spreads are so bare and powerfully so; in one, an isolated child stands in the bottom corner of the double page spread and watches the opposite page which is full of children and their mums: “The other children have their Mums. / It’s not fair.” It’s not. It never is. How can it be?

One other smart thing to note about this book are the hidden, non-textual messages in it. I’ve talked a lot before about the complex and elaborate literacies that picture books can teach readers, and it’s something which occurs in Missing Mummy. The endpapers are coloured in a sort of loose squiggle which means nothing at present. It’s one of those features which looks a little bit as though it’s just decorative – and at the start it is. It’s only upon reading that we see that it’s actually the texture of Mummy’s jumper – which has been turned into a sort of comforter by the young bereaved boy, which hasn’t left his side.

Heartbreaking, sensitive and full of a sparse visual and textual elegance, Missing Mummy is rather outstandingly wonderful.

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Book Reviews

Interplay in ‘the yes’ by Sarah Bee and Satoshi Kitamura

I have been aching to do another picture book in depth post for a while now. Whilst I know picture books aren’t the main focus of this blog, they are one of my great and genuine joys and they are something very, very important. Picture books are our introduction to literacy. They’re read by us in so many ways as our reading ability develops, and as such they have to work on a ridiculous amount of levels. They have to reward the adult reader. The child pre-literate. The child emerging literate. The child literate. And quite often they do that with maybe a handful of words, or none.

Picture books are extraordinary.

Front cover of 'the yes'
A) Front cover of ‘the yes’

And I think that the yes stands proud up there with the best of them.

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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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Open Very Carefully : Nicola O’Byrne & Nick Bromley

Open Very Carefully: A Book with BiteOpen Very Carefully: A Book with Bite by Nick Bromley

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I am thinking about Christmas and whether I focus on it on the blog a little with it being, well, the run up towards Christmas. The problem I have is that I think there’s not really any specific book I would reccomend you purchase as a present (for, I hope, if it were worth featuring, I would feature it irrespective of it’s present potential and of the time of year) and I’m not particularly timely with my reccomendations at times (what with being wed to my library and their purchasing patterns). So I think, perhaps, what I can and will do is this.

I will feature books like Open Very Carefully : A Book With Bite and I shall feature them because of what they do. And in a way, it’s through that ‘what they do’ that they earn their worth. One of the greatest things I could ask you to think about and to give to others if you can or want to, is a confidence with reading. I think sometimes we are afraid of reading, wrapping it up in an inapproachable mysticism and books full of dull and worthy ‘let’s learn to read today, kids!’. I learnt to read a long time ago, but I did not learn the difference between active and passive reading until fairly recently.

And that difference is embodied in books like this. Open Very Carefully is an imprint from the increasingly impressive Nosy Crow publishing house and it is, at first, a very simple looking picture book. The paper is weighty, the art fairly straightforward and as we go in, it appears we’ll be reading a book called ‘The Ugly Duckling’. But that title’s been scribbled across and the words: OPEN VERY CAREFULLY are scrawled across the double page spread.

(This is perhaps my only issue with Open Very Carefully in that it flirts on the edge of brilliance. I almost want it to go one step beyond – to have this ‘The Ugly Duckling’ as the front page spread instead of the actual cover. It’s a little bit back to front, with a front cover telling us what the book is inside and then we step back to read what it was and then we read what it is. I long for that front cover to be this spread with the wording wrapped around it like police hazard tape and daring us to go inside. It is so close to brilliant this book).

Once we start reading, we discover that the innocent story of The Ugly Duckling has been invaded. There is a CROCODILE in this book: “A Really big scary one!” This is when Open Very Carefully starts to make my heart sing. We have the Crocodile eating letters (“I think his favourite letters to eat are O and S”) which means that we have moments like: “St p! / Mr Cr c dile!” / Y u can’t eat the letter !”). We have to rock the book: “backwards and forwards” to rock the crocodile to sleep. This level of audience participation continues throughout: “Maybe if you shake the book he’ll / fall / out.” It’s glorious stuff – and it’s through this level of interactive reading, this, for want of a better phrase, of getting up close and personal with the book, that makes readers confident. You’re showing them the power of words – and what’s more important is that you’re showing them that they – that they, themselves can do this. They can make it happen!

Now that I think about it, Open Very Carefully really is a bit of a gift. Through clever storytelling and beautiful construction (the ‘cut-outs’ towards the end are very nicely done), and some very subtly provocative text, we have something rather special. It’s not Christmasy at all (perhaps the bobble hat on the duckling gives it a Winter flavour?) but it is one of the cleverest picture books I’ve read for a long time. Reminiscent of the great, great “Who’s afraid of the big bad book”, Open Very Carefully is very close to perfect.

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Weasels : Elys Dolan

This is my first Nosy Crow book. I’ve come across the work of Nosy Book a lot already, what with loving their blog and their books when I’ve seen them (and, er, borrowed them) from the hands of my friends and relatives children. And the thing about them, the standard brilliant thing about them, is that they’ve all been really good. High quality books lovingly produced which are all, to be blunt, really really good.

Fig 1: Front Cover
Fig 1: Front Cover

Trust me when I say it’s taken me too long to get to reviewing a Nosy Crow book and it really shouldn’t take you as long as it took me. I am beyond happy that my first  is Weasels by Elys Dolan.

This Bletchley-Bond-Hank Scorpio hybrid of a book which features the titular weasels throughout is very, very good.  And, I think, it all starts on the front cover (fig 1) as good picture books like these tend to do. See those weasels? They’re made of a slightly shinier paper than the rest of the front cover and what that means is they are tactile. You feel the weasels and see them catching the light on the front page. The title and author are done in the same shinier paper.

Remember, in these books, it’s all about the incentives. We want these books to be read and dwelled upon. We want these books to be touched and pawed and combed over, and it’s the simple things, the simple yet madly clever things such as making the weasels stand out, that do that. This is clever, smart production.

And production matters, and it matters so much because it shows value and respect and belief in the contents of the book. The content of Weasels is content worth dwelling on. And it is. And you’ve got that all just by closing your eyes and running your finger over the front cover.

Fig 2: Endpapers (Front)
Fig 2: Endpapers (Front)

So let’s open our eyes and actually have a look at the book itself. There’s a lot going on here and it’s a book that rewards rereading. It rewards dwelling on and tracing all of the narratives threading through. You know that person you know who says picture books are easy simple things? They’re not. They’re possibly one of the hardest forms of children’s literature out there.

Just have a look at the practically edible front endpapers (fig 2) . These are the bits between the front cover and the actual internal title page and copyright blurb. They can sometimes be a dead space, caught in library stamps and padding, but Dolan’s created at least sixteen (sixteen!) tiny beautiful moments here. I’ll repeat that again. Sixteen tiny, beautiful frames of a story and you’ve not even got to the ‘actual’ story yet.  (Sixteen, if not more!!!)

I really loved Dolan’s art in this. It’s so clever in the smallest of spaces. She’s got a real gift for the moment, capturing the awkward, the funny and witty all in the briefest of beats. She gives you so much and never, ever goes for the easy way out. In one scene in particular, where the lights go out, we have one weasel saying with a bit of bemusement, “Why is there a wet patch here?” and then, in the next spread, we see the white weasel (a beautiful recurrent thread throughout the book) nonchalantly whistling as it clears up a broken mug.

Fig 3: Coffee
Fig 3: Coffee

And the coffee! Oh God, the coffee! There’s elements of this book that are beautiful and brilliant and very cleverly aimed for the adults to enjoy and I think that one of those threads is coffee. I refer you in particular to Fig 3 (which, though the picture is a little rubbish, I hope you can still make out). It’s one of many, many equally glorious moments throughout this book but this genuinely had me cracking up. It’s something about the way the top weasel goes “My mocha!” and the bottom one is just caught in his appalled reaction.

This book is very lovely and very good. I hugely reccommend it, and I’m so glad I finally broke my Nosy Crow weasel duck.

You can read previous picture books in depth posts here, and there’s a really fascinating post from Dolan here on the creative process behind Weasels.

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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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Rabbityness : Jo Empson

RabbitynessRabbityness by Jo Empson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I have several children’s literature reading lists on my blog, one of which is titles which feature bereavement / grieving / loss. You can view the actual list here (and it’s crowd-editable, so please feel free to add to it!). One of the titles which often crops up in talk of titles of this nature is Rabbityness.

And last night I read it and I tweeted this: “So I just read ‘Rabbityness’ by Jo Empson. Dear sweet God. *bawls at everything* *eats all the chocolate* *bawls some more* (It’s amazing)”

That, dear reader, sums up my instant emotional reaction to this brilliant, perfect book. It’s one to go into blind in a way (though if you are working / reading it with children, read it first and have a think about your reactions to it beforehand), and it’s one that is just stunning.

Rabbit is a ‘very special rabbit’ who enjoys doing rabbity things such as jumping and running and un-rabbity things such as painting and dancing and making music. One day Rabbit disappears and the other rabbits are heartbroken with his loss. But then they discover what Rabbit left behind for them…

There seems to be a ploy between Empson and Richard Adams to make me bawl at the sight of rabbits. Empson’s so smart and subtle here, and quiet, almost, in her work. The endpapers are a delight, a graphic and quite moving repeated pattern of rabbits doing rabbity things against a vivid green background. And even the title page is a joy, the title scrawled in childish letters and being studied by three silhouetted rabbits whilst another races across the copyright page leaving footprints (or leaves?) behind him in a spectrum of autumn colours.

Once you’re into the book itself, there is a lot of white space centred around the central activities of rabbit. There’s also possibly one of the best uses of a splash page I’ve ever seen which I won’t spoil, but it did make me gasp with utter joy.

Empson is a gift in this book and Rabbityness is one of the best things I’ve read in a long while.

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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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Sunday Catch Up

Hello! It’s been a while hasn’t it? I’ve been in France (pain! boursin! beaucoup de bandes dessinees!) and so this is a slightly bigger catch up than usual for it covers two whole weeks. Two weeks! Anything could happen in two weeks! Kirrin Island could get over-run by pirates! Julian could stop being a know it all!

So what’s been happening in the world of children’s literature?

1. The great children’s literature academic and writer Perry Nodelman has released one of his essays online, and it’s a must for anyone who is interested in picture books. Nodelman’s one of the most approachable and interesting writers I know, and his work is always thought-provoking and revelatory. “On the border between Implication and Actuality : Children Inside and Outside of Picture Books” can be read here.

3. On the subject of picture books, here’s a list of positive representations of disabled children in picture books. It’s a comprehensive and lengthy list, worthy of checking out.

4. This list of resources on book banning is excellent – it includes lesson plans, discussion resources and more. There’s a particular children’s literature connection with the discussion on teaching a book where the author has a very specific personal mindset – the example given is that of Orson Scott Card and his YA novel ‘Ender’s Game’.

5. Though it’s an oldie, it’s still worthy of substantial note. One of the first ever children’s literature resources I discovered on the internet (and one that made me realise that the Chalet School was ‘okay’ to be thought of in Proper Tones) was Ju Gosling’s brilliant Virtual Worlds Of Girls. Go. Go browse!  It’s Dead Good!

6. Did you know this ‘ere blog is also on that there Facebook? It’s true, come and like it if Facebook is your thing!

7. There’s a new chair for the Chair of the Working Party for the CILIP Carnegie and Kate Greenaway Medals (and yes, I had to copy and paste that wording..!) . Good luck Joy! 😀

7. And finally, I think this might be the topic of the next #kidbkgrp … what do you reckon?

See you next week!  😉

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Slog’s Dad : David Almond and Dave McKean

You know, sometimes, how a book catches you? How it sits there very quietly until you notice it and then, just, holds you to it? This is one of those books.

I’ve talked about the wonder of David Almond before, and about his skill in capturing the quiet, and yet somehow immense, magic of the everyday. He makes me rampantly, vividly, awfully,  jealous of his skill. If you look back at his books that I’ve reviewed (The SavageMy Name Is MinaMouse Bird Snake Wolf), they’re all five stars. All of them. Joyously, incredibly so. And I love his work with Dave McKean. I love it with a passion that startles me. I love  the bravery of it, the wild darkness, the just-that-little-bit-on-edge feel of a McKean line. I love that they are producing such intensely superb, challenging, heart-breaking, lovely books.

It is because of that, all of that, that I am beyond thrilled to be able to talk about Slog’s Dad with you in this  post (and I am hugely indebted to Walker Books for giving me permission to use the enclosed images which truly do justice to this book). This post is the first of two which will come at the book at slightly different angles. The second post in the series is a perspective on the book from my incredibly talented friend Jackie Grant, a trained bereavement counsellor (coming tomorrow!).

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Book Reviews Theory

The eyes have it : “Hugless Douglas” by David Melling

Front cover
Front cover

Can I talk to you about Hugless Douglas?

Firstly, I need to give you a bit of background. This book is not one to read when you are feeling remotely hormonal. I read it, and I sobbed. Hugless Douglas broke me in a very good way. It’s a simple, emotional and beautifully told story.

And it’s one that, I think, is all about the eyes.

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Theory

The use of paratexts in Egg by Alex T Smith

” Fig. 1: Front Cover

This is ‘Egg’ by Alex T Smith. It is very very lovely (as is all of his work) but what makes this one shine (and inspired this post) is the use of paratexts in this book.

“Paratexts?” I hear you say, “What are these paratexts you talk of?”

Take a seat my intrigued friend!

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Book Reviews

Azzi in Between : Sarah Garland

Azzi in BetweenAzzi in Between by Sarah Garland

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Azzi In Between first came to my attention following it winning the inaugural Little Rebels Children’s Book Award . This, coupled with the review it got over at Playing By The Book meant that it was one book that was very much on my radar.

And I’m so glad it was.

There’s a problem (do I mean problem? issue, maybe, concern, maybe) with books of this nature sometimes becoming too overly didactic. I don’t mind that at times but I do mind it when the ideology becomes overwhelming for the reader. There’s a fine line between questioning an issue, between highlighting the awfulness of something, through to trying to impose your authorial ideology upon another.

This is something Garland handles very well here. She’s crafted a kind, warm-hearted and very very quietly provocative book centred around the journey of the titular Azzi. Azzi lives in a un-named country where her father ‘worked as a doctor’, her mother ‘made beautiful clothes’ and her grandma ‘wove warm blankets.’ One day her father receives a phonecall that they are in terrible danger and ‘at that moment Azzi’s life changed for ever.’

We follow the family through their journey the United Kingdom (un-named, but recognisable by the white cliffs of Dover) and watch Azzi adopt her new life. This is where the title becomes more pertinent; Azzi’s caught in between two worlds and she’s neither one or the other. It’s in how she bridges that gap and starts to weave the two together, that’s where the vibrant heart of this book kicks in.

Graphically, it’s very simply done. Garland’s style has a warmth about it that’s shaded in shadowy, light-caught colours that never seem quite solid or still on the page. That’s interesting and reflects the main narrative; Azzi is never really still on her journey. She’s always changing and moving and never quite feeling rooted where she is. It’s noticeable that in the latter half of the book, the colours start to feel a lot more solid and rooted, and the images feel more constructed around the people as opposed to around the world. Azzi is in her panels, owning her space, and surrounded by the people she loves.

It’s a charming, moving story and one that’s well worth checking out.

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Sunday round up and reflections

Look, it’s a new series! I’m hoping to do this sort of catch up post as a bit of a weekly thing. There’s a lot of good stuff that flies around the Twittersphere and so this series of round-up posts is designed to catch some of them that you may have missed and stuff that I think warrants highlighting. And things I, to be frank, just like.

1. It’s been a big week in children’s literature as Malorie Blackman continued to storm the media following her being announced as Children’s Laureate. I’m in great love with what she’s been saying and long may it continue. Here she talks about the need for “more books about non-white children” (a sentiment reinforced here by Tanya Byrne). In a separate article, Blackman discussess how honest sex scenes in books will stop young people learning from p*rn (asterisked solely to prevent errant search results) and I have to say, she’s on point. Very much so. (As is Sarra Manning who is a bit brilliant in this post on the topic.)

2. Related to the above, there’s been a flurry of interesting posts relating to the issue of diversity in children’s literature. The new issue of Write4Children came out and it was a themed issue on diversity. The range of topics covered, and the skill that they’re covered in, is massively impressive and I’d urge you to have a long look through it. In addition to this, there’s been some interesting blog posts on the topic of diversity. I was particularly struck by this heartfelt and vital post from Rhino Reads “Mommy, Mama and Me and the importance of diversity in children’s books”.

3. In the land of picture books, this article on reading wordless picture books is really interesting (and lavishly illustrated which is always a plus). And I discovered the best / most bonkers range of children’s board books ever! Have you touched these? Are they amazing? Are they terrifying? I need to know!

See you next week 🙂

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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.

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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

I want my hat back : Jon Klassen

I Want My Hat BackI Want My Hat Back by Jon Klassen

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

There are moments when I am dazzled by the wonder of picture books. It happened with Martha and the Bunny Brothers by Clara Vulliamy and it has happened here again. Klassen’s masterful story is perfection. And I love it so.

It is simple, precise, elegant. A bear has lost his hat. He would like it back. He goes out on a quest to retrieve his hat.

Drawn with an intense stillness and coloured in a subtle, woodland palette, the book is a delight. The bear himself is reminiscent of those paintings where the eyes follow you around the room; his emphatic bulk offset by eyes which question everything around him, lost in the suspicion of whole stole his hat. So much of this book rests in his eyes, it’s almost a masterclass in storytelling. Think about it. Two black dots in white space and yet we inscribe so much meaning to them. When you read this, look at the eyes, look at the way they’re positioned in the page, look at the way the bear never blinks, look at how the eyes are the implacable bear embodied in the tiniest of spaces.

What’s vital to note about this book as well is that it is so very clever. The bear is always looking, always directing the reader to investigate the page. It’s almost pantomime in nature and the urge to cry something along the lines of “It’s behind you!” is never far away.

And when a book spills out into the endpapers and gives me the subtlest and wittiest coda to a picture book I’ve ever seen, it has my adoration for life.

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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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Book Reviews

Martha and the Bunny Brothers : Clara Vulliamy

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(1) Front Cover

I’ve been wanting to do a slightly more in-depth review of a picture book for a while, and when I came across the very gorgeous Martha and the Bunny Brothers by Clara Vulliamy it felt like the perfect opportunity.

What I want this post to do is give you a bit of background on how I read picture books. I don’t have children. I don’t read them with children. I read them in a sort of different manner that I think is worthy of examination.

So where do I start? I take a look at the plot, briefly, but usually I start by looking at the front cover (1). The front cover of a picture book is vital. The intended audience is quite often pre/emerging literates and so the words may mean very little. It’s about the feel. And this feels gorgeous. It makes me smile. Hugely. I love how the little I ❤ School motif on the bottom, right in the centre has a distinct exercise book / name label quality to it , what with the little dashes underneath and the carefully formed lettering on top of it. There’s a lot to be said as well about the exuberance of the bunnies. We have Martha and her brothers, all of them smiling and arms outspread. This is such an open moment, these rabbits aren’t hiding anything from you. They want you here. This book wants you here. It would be rude not to read it.

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(2) Page One

Once inside, we immediately see this (2). There’s a lot here that’s making me happy. The bold felt-tip pen colours continue (which I like, feeling instantly drawn back to school), and we start to see shapes being introduced. One recurrent motif turns out to be these scalloped edged circles. I really enjoy the dialogue between the pink circles on the left hand side – one, two, three “That’s me!”. There’s an exuberance in that movement, stretching all the way across the double page spread, pulling the reader visually to a bright and exciting discovery at the end of it. I also love the way that Martha errupts from the inside of her own circle. That springy sense of ‘I’m here!’, the way she doesn’t quite fit in her circle, she’s too big for it. I love that – the construction of an image that is, in its own way, as complicated as the highest of textual metaphor. To discover it so early in a book is reassuring to say the least.

(3) Page 2/3
(3) Page 2/3

The next double page spread (3) is the moment that I know this book has got me. And it’s a very specific moment. It’s in this little section (4), right by the spine, where Martha says that she likes doodling, and the way the typography slides, very gloriously right through to the ‘background’ of the page, and the doodles spin off into the page. I love books that acknowledge their form, that connect the front image with the back, and acknowledge the glorious potential of these layers of image.

(4) Doodling close-up
(4) Doodling close-up

I mean, it’s glorious. This book is so lovely and put together with such a genuine love for the subject and the medium, that it’s a rampant pleasure to read. Moments such as (5) where the story slides into the picture frames set against a rabbit Toile de Jouy is lovely. It’s a play on the overly formal living room setting, cheekily undermined by Paws racing across the bottom with a shoe in his mouth.

And so this is the moment where I make my decision, and it’s balanced on all of this. It’s balanced on how a book makes me feel, on whether I go through it with a smile, of whether I’m intrigued and excited, of whether I’m surprised about what comes next. It’s also thinking about whether I’d like other people to see it, to enjoy it, to feel like what I did. And it’s about thinking about how I’d feel if I saw it in the hands of my niece or nephews, or my friend’s baby. It’s about thinking what I want this books journey to be in the world.

(5) Picture frames
(5) Picture frames

But, sometimes, all of that doesn’t matter. Not at all. Because sometimes a book just makes you feel intensely happy that it exists and that’s what has happened here. I’m sold.  I was sold ever since I saw those pink circles, that doodling beat, and the way the book is so furiously happy in what it is.

Martha, I really really like you. You made me proper happy.

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Book Reviews

Alfie gets in first : Shirley Hughes

Alfie Gets in FirstAlfie Gets in First by Shirley Hughes

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

We all know and love Alfie right? I do. He’s an iconic character, created by the equally iconic Shirley Hughes, and this is one of my favourite titles starring him and his younger sister Annie Rose.

But, before I talk about this, I need to segue slightly. The other day I was discussing comic books with somebody and how they were being disparaged by parents who did not approve of their children who read these books. My point there, and one which applies here as well, was that the visual literacy needed to read and appreciate comics is massive – and it all contributes towards becoming literate. It is just another, and a deceptively complicated, route towards literacy.

Let me tell you about what I mean, and luckily enough there are moments in Alfie Gets In First which sum this up superbly. Consider the spreads where the locked door is placed central, down the spine of the book, indicated by the gutter between the two panels on either facing page. The verso(left) page tells the story of the increasingly active outdoor narrative, whilst the recto (right) page tells the story of Alfie, inside. What’s particularly glorious is that, at the same time of these two differing visual narratives, we also have a third layer to the book – that of the text, which describes the whole of the story, quite often ignoring what is going on beneath it, therefore forcing the reader to puzzle out and see what’s actually going on.

And then (not only, but also) we have the treatment of time in the book, the way the verso spread is slightly ahead of the text on the recto page and then, when the impact of the text starts to hit home, we appreciate the recto imagework even more. Take a look at the moment where Alfie starts to cry, his face crumbling as he realises the predicament of his situation. It is beautifully done, capturing the small boy in the shift – the actual moment – where he starts to panic a little bit.

It is all so subtle and so very cleverly handled. Picture books like this have a sort of deceptive skill about them. It’s easy to put a picture on a page. It’s not easy to load it with visual cues, to capture a cat mid leap out of the frame, to include incentives to turn the page, and to tell a story. It’s not.

Shirley Hughes is one of our national storytelling treasures. It’s easy to forget sometimes that we are living in a golden age of children’s literature and have been doing so for a good few years now. I genuinely think that names such as Shirley Hughes are those who flew the flag to get us here. And long may she keep on flying that flag.

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Book Reviews

There are cats in this book : Viviane Schwarz

There Are Cats in This BookThere Are Cats in This Book by Viviane Schwarz

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Sometimes when a picture book works really well, it’s a delight regardless of what age you are. The best ones work at a level accessible to everyone, bringing different levels of nuance and meaning to an apparently simplistic concept. They are very hard to do, and very hard to do well.

This, my friends, is brilliant. There Are Cats In This Book is a glorious lovely thing that had me giggling as I turned the pages. It is a very straightforward premise; the cats in the book are waiting for somebody to play with them, and by reading it, you are playing with them: “Come play with the cats in this book, Tiny, Moonpie and André. All you have to do is start turning the pages!”

What I love, love, love about this is how it teaches so much about the art and act of reading. The frontispiece has a little coda (“The cats aren’t on this page”) and then, when you hit the apparent book itself, which you’ve actually been reading from the moment you saw the front cover, the cats are hidden sleepily behind a blanket which you have to lift up and discover them beneath.

So, in a few pages, you’re learning the concept of narrative, the concept of reader-driven narrative, and the concept of how to actually read a book. This is massive, massive stuff and stuff that’s superbly handled.

It continues in this lovely vein throughout the book; the reader must open boxes where the cats are hiding, turn the page to let them play in the wool they’ve spotted, and accidentally get involved in a cushion fight. The latter moment is brilliant as it also reinforces the cause and effect nature of narrative; you keep reading, things keep happening. This is all really powerful stuff for the developing literate.

Artistically it’s an utter treat. Schwarz has a bold exuberance to her colours and I love how every now and then the colours of the cats push out of their black outlines. This helps to give the cats an intense vitality to their movements and lets them live off the page.

This is such good stuff. Seriously. It’s outstanding.

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Everything else

A book & movie review : Where The Wild Things Are

WherethewildthingsareA 2009 Spike Jonze film, and a 1963 picture book classic may not seem the closest of relations, but they are. Jonze’s live-action adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s superb ‘Where The Wild Things Are’ was released in 2009. The book and the film form the second of my combined book and movie reviews (the first was a look at The Black Stallion).

The book itself is one of those big picture books that, with a mastery of economy and a subtle lightness of touch, expresses a pivotal moment in a boys life. This is what happens when Max throws a tantrum. He is sent to his room where suddenly a forest start to grow and he is transported to the island where the wild things live. Max becomes their King, before eventually missing home and sailing back home in time for his still hot supper. That’s a very bald synopsis for a very complex and rich book. Some of the finest parts of it contain no words and show the ‘wild rumpus’ on the island being enjoyed by both the wild things and Max. These are pictures full of an exuberant and glory-filled wildness.

It’s a book that has shifted into iconic status, and rightly so.  What I personally love about it is that Sendak allows Max to rage against the injustices of his life. His fury is legitimate. Max will not go quietly into that dark night. He is allowed to be angry, to be fiery, to be unreasonable, and yet to also gain a sense of self and to grow. It’s a fine, fine balance to achieve in a book and an even finer achievement when one considers the relative brevity of a picture book.

Adapting this book into a film would always rely heavily on Max. He needs to be furious and endearing, complicated and naive, brave and scared. He needs to be everything when he needs to be, and nothing when he doesn’t. And Max Records, the actor cast to play him, delivers superbly. When he’s still, his eyes tell everything, and when he’s caught in fury, his body expresses his rage. Wholly. He’s an all or nothing sort of actor, and delivers without an inch of self-consciousness. I loved him. I fell in love with him in the opening sequence, practically instantly, when he caught that subtle moment of having fun and then suddenly it all goes too far and somebody gets hurt.

What’s also pleasing is that one of the other pivotal roles, Max’s mother, is equally astutely cast. My beloved Catherine Keener takes the role, and brings to it a lovely sense of warmth and sympathy. I also had a bit of a moment at the sight of Percy Jackson’s mother chatting to the Incredible Hulk and briefly entertained the thought of an epic crossover between the two franchises.

On a personal level, I had some severe doubts at hearing the Wild Things actually speak, and the accents they spoke in,  but a lot of that relates to them being book characters in the first place. When you read books, you read them in your own voice and so I imprinted my perceptions onto these monsters. It did grate initially but I barely noticed it after ten minutes or so.

There is a lot of love in this film, from the quite beautiful and subtle soundtrack (Karen O) to the warm and potent script (Jonze & Dave Eggers). Jonze shoots this film with an epic sense of romance, allowing the camera to dwell for long beats on sunshine drenched frames and beautifully staged moments. The final beat of the film is particularly potent. I also enjoyed that there was a lot of respect for the source text; shapes and colours and elements from the book were brought to the film’s visual identity with wit and grace.

The transition to film perhaps pulls the story slightly into a more adult perspective, what with the careful construction of the Wild Things who slowly pull and question Max to facilitate his development. It’s vaguely reminiscent of a Woody Allen film at parts, but as a whole, this film is a languid, subtle experience and one that, when the dark moments come, hits you very hard. There’s such tension here, and such beauty, even in the anger and sadness.

Where The Wild Things Are is an utter gem. It’s a stunning book, and a valuable, elegant and beautiful film.

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Book Reviews

The Little Bird : Dick Bruna


DCIM101MEDIAThe Little Bird by Dick Bruna

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

So. Dick Bruna. My beloved god of felt-tip pen bluntness, and vivid colour. Is it too hyperbolic to say that this moved me to tears at the end of it? I think maybe, it is, and yet, it did. So it stands.

Bruna is probably best known, and justly so, for his work with Miffy. But Miffy isn’t the entirety of his creative output. The Little Bird is a stand alone story of 24 page. Every verso (left) page has four simple lines of text, being accompanied on the recto (right) page with an illustration.

The little bird is on a journey, looking for somewhere to build her nest. She engages in a question and answer dialogue with a variety of characters – a puppy, the farmer, the farmer’s wife, a cow, a sunflower and so on. Ultimately after she searches the entire farm, the little bird ends up “building her nest in a secret place / where nobody would ever find it.”

It’s a simple, bordering on tragic story. Truly. It’s got echoes of the nativity at points (no room at the inn), and I found the ending, when the bird eventually flies away, an incredibly sad moment. The thing about books like this is that they sing, they sing much greater than their apparent ‘smallness’. Bruna’s a master at this, addressing world-shifting themes in the smallest of books. His Dear grandma bunny is perhaps the best rumination on grief that I have ever read.

And what of the noted Bruna style? It is present, so very present in this book. The simple, and yet exuberant images rest comfortably in their one page frame. But there’s, as always, something very clever in his work. The opening spread shows the bird with her beak pointing towards the centre of the book. The final image is of the bird flying away, her beak pointing at the outer edge of the top right hand page. The bird maps the story visually, without even viewing the text.

I often think that the younger you go in picture books, the more complex and clever you have to be. And sometimes it is the moments that look the simplest that are the ones that are the fullest of clever, brave, and good writing. I love you Dick Bruna, I really really do.

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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.

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Book Reviews

Eloise : Kay Thompson

DCIM101MEDIAThis book, oh this gloriously wicked and funny book, is one of my greatest pleasures. Kay Thompson was godmother to Liza (Lizaaa!) Minelli and wrote the Eloise series inspired by both the antics of Liza, and the experiences that Thompson herself had as living at the Plaza. And it is glorious.

Eloise is a furiously fabulous creation, full of stubborn humour and eccentric pleasures. And she lives. That’s such a thing for a character in a book of this nature, wrapped in long lines of text and strange sounding words, but she does – Hilary Knight’s illustrations make Eloise practically burst out from the page. And it’s a spirit you pick up right from the moment you open the page – as Eloise races out of sight and into the book. DCIM101MEDIA

I’ve got a bit of a thing for books of this nature, books that show us life – albeit a perhaps extreme form of life that many may not experience! – and books that show us what it can be like to be a girl and a woman. The spreads of Nanny putting on her corset for example is one of my favourite in the entire book. It’s in the loving detail of the corset, drawn with a sort of almost palpable warmth – as if it’s an old friend of Nannys which of course it is in a way!

And the relationship between Nanny and Eloise is something I particularly love as well. The whole boeloise and nannyok is coloured in this muted palette of blacks and whites and reds – reds that burn with a fiery fuschia , and then slide into the softest of muted candy stripe pinks.  There’s a lot that can be said with the use of line in picture books – and if you’ve not had a look at Jane Doonan’s superb Looking at Pictures in Picture Books, you’re missing a treat. Knight’s use of line and colour  in this book is outstanding.

Consider this moment between Nanny and Eloise. Eloise is so furiously present, she’s a blunt punch of colour and Nanny, quietly having a good old smoke in the background, is a quietly lovely mixture of black and whites against the candy striped gaiety of the sofa. Nanny merges with the background at points, and it’s sort of a comforting merge. It’s as if Nanny is so solid in Eloise’s life, so rooted, that she is just there. And she will always be there.

There’s something to be said about the construction of this image as well; the TV throws light onto Nanny and Eloise and casts a brief, flickering shadow on the wall. Nothing else beyond this couch matters because, in a way, nothing else exists. It’s all about Nanny and Eloise, and their contentment both in the moment and each other. Eloise, exuberant though she’s technically still, holds an umbrealla and you can almost feel her twirling it, and dangling her feet off the end of the couch. She’s so in this moment, so very very present, that it’s an amazingly palpable moment to witness.

Eloise is one of those books that lets you do everything you always wanted. It lets you ride the lifts up and down and press for the highest floor when you really only want the first  – and it’s all just because you can, and because you want to. It’s a book of wish-fulfilment, of furious id, of glorious vivid living in the moment because right now the moment’s all that matters.

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Book Reviews

Dogs’ Night : Meredith Hooper

Dogs' NightDogs’ Night by Meredith Hooper

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is such a lovely book. Set in the National Gallery, London, the dogs of the paintings come out once a year on Dogs’ Night. This year there’s a party in the gallery and all of the dogs are waiting until the party guests leave and they can throw a party of their own.

Once the guests do leave, it’s time for the dogs to have their party. And it’s a riotous affair! We see dogs of all shapes, colours and sizes racing around the gallery. There’s a vivid sense of pace and place to these pages primarily because of the rampant iconicism of the National Gallery. It is such a gorgeous setting and Curless and Burgess play joyously in it.

But then, at the end of Dogs’ Night, things go a little awry and some of the dogs end up in the wrong paintings! This obviously draws a little attention and the dogs have to deal with being in the wrong paintings until next Dogs’ Night when they can come out, party, and make sure they go home to the right painting.

What I also liked about this is the palpable sense of joy and how it utilises real artworks in the book. There’s a nice little introduction to the actual paintings used at the back of the book and I adored the suggestion that every art gallery has its dogs’ night. When I was growing up, I used to love hunting for hidden doors in French chateaux when we were on holiday. Looking for the dogs is a similar sort of thing – and it’s a very clever way to introduce children to classic artwork.

Have a look at Google Art Project to explore the collection and ‘hunt the dogs’ online!

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Book Reviews Theory

hello baby : a high contrast mirror book

hello baby : a high contrast mirror book is one of the new titles (September 2012) from Priddy Books designed specifically for newborn babies. My thanks to Priddy Books for sending me a copy of this to have a look at. It’s part of a wider range of books for newborns and the other items can be viewed here.

Before children become literate, they are pre-literate. The process of becoming literate is known as emergent literacy. It’s a massively fascinating area primarily because of the rapid developmental that occur. You can read a more in-depth post I did on this topic here and another interesting paper here which illustrates some of the key developmental shifts.

What’s the state of play with these books at the moment? I did a very informal survey of my local ASDA to see what was easily available. I know it’s not technically a bookstore but bearing in mind that Tescos, for example.  is pretty much heading straight on to confront Amazon, I think discounting the reach and impact of supermarkets (no pun intended) is something we should be very careful of doing.


So this is what I found. Baby books are genuinely brand-related, and part of a wider media profile. We had Peppa Pig, The Lion King, various other Disney franchises and a few of the more ‘traditional’ baby books along the lines of ‘is this my bear’ and ‘press here for sound X. Whilst I obviously don’t take this informal survey to be indicative of the wider market, I do think that based on the uniformity of supermarkets, there’s definitely a place in the market for the ‘hello baby’ books and I’d welcome them being actively promoted as an alternative to the above books, some of which really didn’t impress me.

I have a lot of love for this book. hello baby is a conceptually exciting and visually pleasing book, reminiscent at points of Black and White by Tana Hoban. Produced in thick, solid, chewable board, it has a central cutout throughout the book with a mirrored panel on the final pages. This title is priced at £4.99 which seems about right (I note it’s already on Amazon at half price from some retailers).


Consisting of five spreads (ie: ten pages), it has no words and instead focuses its impact on a series of abstract images from a colour palette of black, white, red, yellow and blue. Each page has a separate image with a hole in the middle, and the final page has a mirror inset in the hole. It’s a fun, gorgeous and very visually stimulating book. I can imagine there’s a lot of fun to be had just looking through this and using it as a springboard for colour, shapes and self-recognition.

This is a really solid and very gorgeously designed book and one I’d massively enjoy sharing with babies as I think there may be a lot of pleasure to be experienced on both sides. You never know what may happen, they may grow up to be the next Miró..!

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Everything else

The Beaver Pond : Alvin Tresselt (illustrations: Roger Duvoisin)

The Beaver PondThe Beaver Pond by Alvin R. Tresselt

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I found The Beaver Pond quite by accident, turning left instead of right and getting lost amongst the picture books. I’m very lucky in the library that I frequent in that it quite often throws up hidden treasures in this manner.

The Beaver Pond is a slim picture book first published in 1971 and is a fairly traditional production. We have images and text clearly delineated; the full page heavily coloured images stand by themselves and where a double page spread occurs, there’s a white gutter across the bottom of the spread for the text to stand on.

It tells the story of the life-cycle of a beaver pond. We follow it throughout the seasons and see how the weather affects the animals that live round and about the pond (“the winter snows swept down, filling the hollows / and covering the secret runways of field mice”). The pond starts to shrink over the years, packed up by mud and dirt and eventually it grows too small for the beavers and they move on. When the spring floods come, the damn (no longer maintained by the beavers) breaks and the waters sweep over the small pond and into a stream (“Once more the stream ran free, / Bit by bit the muddy floor of the old pond / turned green. Young plants sprang up in the rich earth and where once a pond / had caught and held the blue sky / there spread a green and grassy meadow / with a brook meandering through it”). The beavers, down-stream, had already built a dam for their home and this catches the stream and forms a new pond for all the animals to live in and around.

This is coming up to 40 years old and naturally is showing a little age but there’s still a charm about this book that appeals. I really like the quiet message about rejuvenation and the cyclical nature of, um, nature. I was reminded a lot of the Silver Brumby books by Elyne Mitchell as both books share a strong painterly touch for describing their native locales.

If you see this on a bookshelf somewhere, quite probably deep in the shadows, don’t be put off by the slightly dated air of the front cover. It’s a charming, quiet book with some very beautiful moments.

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Book Reviews

A Ball For Daisy : Chris Raschka

A Ball for DaisyA Ball for Daisy by Chris Raschka

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A Ball For Daisy is a potent, poetical picture book. Told in vivid, brilliant hues of thick luscious colour, it tells the story of a dog who loses her ball.

It’s a slight story, yes, but simple? No. Not really.

A Ball for Daisy is wordless but Raschka conveys so much through his bold thick usage of lines and deceptively relaxed imagery. Daisy herself is a shaggy dog of a thousand breeds but she sings on these pages. Every image involving her is beautifully done; there’s just so much – dog – here.

There’s one double page spread with Daisy on a sofa and all it does is show her in different positions before being eventually comforted by her owner. It’s done so skilfully though that with what is essentially a fixed frame we witness the passing of time through the subtle use of color wash behind the sofas and we can almost feel the hours bleeding into each other through the continuous use of line of the ‘stacked’ sofas. I won’t put a picture up of it as it’s a fairly pivotal moment and I don’t want to spoil the joy for you.

It’s books like these that make picture books an artform. There’s so much going on here and at no point do we slip into overt moralising or didacticism. It’s just the story of a dog and her ball but it’s also about friendship and love with a very gorgeous little twist at the end that made me smile from ear to ear.

I loved this. So much.

I just want a dog now.
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Everything else

Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Book : Lauren Child

 Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Book?

 I wanted to do a slightly different review this week and focus on one book in great detail. That book is  Who’s Afraid of The Big Bad Book? by Lauren Child. It’s a book that, for me, is (to quote Mary Poppins) practically perfect in every way. The central character Herb falls asleep with his head on his book of fairy tales and ends up inside the book itself. Through quick-thinking and luck and the willing / unwilling help of a host of fairy tale characters, he makes it safely out of the story and wakes up.

Image from: http://open.jorum.ac.uk/xmlui/bitstream/handle/123456789/748/Items/E301_1_section13.html

When dealing with books like these, it’s vital to understand the role of the reader. Picture Books hold a special relationship to their audience. Usually written for children, they have the ability to be read to the child at a young age and then read by the child at a later date. During this first phase of interaction, when the child is being read to, there is the presence of an other in the reading of this text. This adult figure will also have an impact on the narrative, perhaps one greater than the child at this stage, and it is for this reason I refer to reader/s. There is more than one.

Children often select books on their covers. Books are specifically displayed ‘face-out’ in libraries in order to capitalize on this thought process. The front cover in this instance depicts Herb, reading a stylized copy of the eponymous book, his shadow thick and black behind him. A long thin hand stretches towards him and the words Who, Afraid, Big, Bad and Book are thick and black and prominent. The less important words are outlined and the author herself is named in rainbow colours. This colourful mixture is eye catching and also challenging. It is a challenge to the reader – are you afraid? Are you brave enough to read this book? Can you read it before somebody takes it off you?  It also plays on a childs herd mentality, the wish to be part of the group: Herb is reading it on the front cover so why aren’t you?

Image from: http://carnegiegreenaway.org.uk/shadowingsite/teachers/res_visual_lit_02.asp

Flicking through Who’s Afraid of The Big Bad Book? is a genuine delight. Child plays superbly with the concept of ownership of books and with the very concept of the book itself. There is apparent graffiti on the first page,  the name of Herb is scrawled on the page, cut out telephones are stuck on random pages and food and drink stains dot nearly every page.  It is a book that speaks of it’s history as a book; we consider the object of this book in equal weight to the text.

A distinct feature of Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Book? is its usage of diverse typology and challenging text. It starts in a fairly understated manner – text on one side of a double spread and the image on the other. The text is carefully structured; we have sentences, paragraphs, capital letters and full stops. The beginning of the thought and the end of the thought is clear. But then, if we look carefully, anarchy swiftly takes root. The squashed pea itself makes little visual sense until we reach the end of the page and read about Herb’s books with squashed peas between the pages.

Image from: http://www.mylearning.org/charlie-and-lola-and-the-worlds-of-lauren-child/images/1-3338/

It’s not just the visuals in this book which exude a sense of exuberant anarchy. Typologically, this book and Child’s work as a whole have a gloriously disjointed, crazy, vibrant quality. Upon reading book