No Ballet Shoes In Syria by Catherine Bruton

No Ballet Shoes in Syria

No Ballet Shoes in Syria by Catherine Bruton

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


Aya is eleven, Syrian, and seeking asylum in Britain. Her mum, her, and her baby brother, escaped from the war in Syria – but her father got separated from them on the way. Her whole family is suffering from the experience (and it’s handled so delicately and sensitively and well by Bruton but fyi if you’re working with children who may have undergone a similar experience), and her life is not easy. One day she comes across a ballet class, and it’s there that everything starts to change…

In her introduction to this, Bruton name-checks some of the best dance stories out there – the Sadlers Wells books by the wonderful Lorna Hill; Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfeild; and The Swish of the Curtain by Pamela Brown. It’s a small thing, but incredibly important as it means that she knows her stuff. These are totemic books, in a perenially popular genre of children’s literature, and I think that No Ballet Shoes In Syria more than stands up to them. In fact, it’s out in May and I’m telling you about it now because I think it’s great. It made me cry, and it made me smile, and it feels like one of those quietly classic stories that British children’s literature does so utterly well.

It’s full of a lot of heart this, not in the least with the representation of Aya. She’s a powerful, brave character and the impact of her experience is never far from her. It’s no easy thing to write somebody suffering from trauma, let alone to render that in such a beautiful, under-stated and kind manner, but Bruton manages it extremely well. The narrative engages in a series of flashbacks, talking about her life in Syria and the slow erosion of this by war, and the contrast is starkly rendered at some points. I was particularly moved by the points where the relative privilege and comfort of Aya’s new life in Britain triggered some painful flashbacks for her. It’s also important to note that this is a book that knows its stuff; the distinction between a refugee and an asylum seeker is carefully made, and the historic parallels of Aya’s journey are sensitively and movingly explored.

This is a good book. It’s honest, kind, heartbreaking and really rather utterly lovely.

My thanks to the publisher for a review copy.



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A trio of board book reviews

I have a trio of board books to bring to your attention today! When I’m sent something to review, it doesn’t always get to the point of being reviewed. Sometimes we don’t click, sometimes there’s very little I can say about it, or sometimes it’s so out of my remit that I wouldn’t know where to begin. But sometimes, it’s a gorgeous pack of board books that demand attention, and this is the substance of today’s post.

The board book is a curious thing. It’s the first introduction to story for very little people, and as such needs to do a thousand things – and also survive more than one read. I’ve spoken about the quality of Nosy Crow’s books before, and I think they really handle the early years well. I mean, I wouldn’t be talking about them here if I didn’t. 🙂 Here’s a look at a few of my recent favourites …

Where's Mrs Kangaroo, front cover.

Where’s Mrs Kangaroo? by Nosy Crow

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A charming and rather lovely board book illustrated by Ingela P Arrhenius, this is a treat. It’s chunky and solid and well put together, and Arrenhenius’ illustrations are a treat. They’re stylish, modern and very nicely done in such a small space. Textually, it’s very straightforward and based around a question and answer: “Where’s Mr Koala?” “Here he is!” The answer is located behind a flap of felt that’s shaped and coloured to match the scene. I’d welcome some books of this nature to start to explore alternatives to ‘Mr’ and ‘Mrs’, but other than that, this is a lovely, lovely thing.


Superhero Mum and Daughter front cover

Superhero mum and daughter by Timothy Knapman

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When I got to the final spread of this, I absolutely fell in love. I’m a sucker for exuberance in board books, particularly those that celebrate the power of mums. This is a simple story written by Timothy Knapman that celebrates a day in the life of a mum (and it’s quite an exhausting one!). She runs with her daughter to catch the bus; she plays in the playground; and she finds the lost teddy. She’s a super-mum indeed, but the conclusion rather nicely points out that this isn’t just a one-off: “Every mum’s a superhero and so is every girl!” (The illustrations here by Joe Berger are particularly wonderful; a rainbow bright, fierce explosion of love).

One thing to bear in mind is that Superhero mum and son is a gender swapped version of this story. The text and images are substantially similar, save for the gendered detail (the female protagonist shifts to a male one).

Animal Families Farm front cover

Animal Families: Farm by Nosy Crow

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Much more visually distinct than many other board books out there, this is a really beautiful thing from Jane Ormes and Nosy Crow. Artistically it’s reminiscent of some powerful things – Orla Kiely; Pat Hutchins to name but two – and I thoroughly enjoyed it. It’s a simple lift the flap exercise, though instead of moving on a north-south dynamic, these flaps explore east-west (and as such, offer the opportunity to play around with developing some other skills, plus the awareness of the ‘movement’ of the book itself).

I also rather loved that it doesn’t shy away from esoteric and strange vocabulary. Not everything for this age group has to be written in a particular manner; this teaches the collective noun for donkeys (a pace!) and talks about the different names for mummy and daddy animals to be found on a farm. The illustrations throughout are lovely, and this is such a gorgeous thing.


So You Think You’ve Got It Bad? A Kid’s Life in Ancient Greece by Chae Strathie, illus. Marisa Morea

So You Think You've Got It Bad? A Kid's Life in Ancient Greece

So You Think You’ve Got It Bad? A Kid’s Life in Ancient Greece by Chae Strathie

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This was fun. ‘So You Think You’ve Got It Bad? A Kid’s Life In Ancient Greece’ isn’t the pithiest of titles (and indeed, a structure paralleled by others in the series such as So You Think You’ve Got It Bad? A Kid’s Life in Ancient Egypt) but it is a rather pithy and well-told piece of non-fiction. What’s really interesting is that this comes from a partnership between Nosy Crow and the British Museum and clearly draws upon some of the themes, objects and knowledge of that institution. It’s easy for books of this nature to become simple ‘let me pay you some money and whack my brand on the front of it’ exercises, but I suspect that this is something that wouldn’t ever happen in the Nosy Crow stable. Their books always have a really nice sense of quality and pride about them, and this is no exception.

And so to content –

Covering topics such as ‘The Home’, ‘Diet’ and ‘Fun And Games’, A Kid’s Life In Ancient Greek works through societal rules and expectations for children. I was pleased to see it include a section on ‘Life As A Spartan’ which quite tactfully introduces the hardship of this experience, and I also loved how each section had colour coded page edges – it’s the little notes like this that bind the experience together.

Tonally, it’s more reminiscent of all the all-devouring Horrible Histories series though it does shy away from full on pastiche (which is a good thing!). Instead Strathie takes a lot of pleasure in exploring history from a contemporary perspective and embracing the humour that comes from this: “In Greek Pictures warriors were sometimes depicted with no clothes on. Nakedness was a symbol of bravery in Greek art. It is not a symbol of bravery nowadays. We repeat, it is NOT a symbol of bravery nowadays.” It’s perhaps not the most historical ‘tone’ one might expect, but he does work a lot of information into this, and neatly too.

I loved discovering Marisa Morea’s illustrations. She’s got a very gentle sense of line and colour, embracing that kind of contemporary, natural edge to her work, and as such makes it all very relateable. There’s a substantial mixture of skin-tones and body shapes represented, which is something very lovely to see.

My only concerns with the volume were that I’d have welcomed more being done with the endpapers (particularly as ancient Greek art is so rich with this sort of thing), and the glossary could have done with a little more relationship to the text itself – it felt a little disjointed. Other than that, this is a smart and solid endeavour.

My thanks to the publisher for a review copy.



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Charlie Changes Into A Chicken by Sam Copeland

Charlie Changes Into a Chicken

Charlie Changes Into a Chicken by Sam Copeland

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


There’s something rather appealing about a book that displays its intent so clearly. Charlie Changes Into A Chicken gives you everything from page one, and continues to do that on every page that follows. It’s determinedly readable (seriously the drive behind this is almost palpable), full of direct address to the reader and some very funny moments. Charlie McGuffin (the layers of meaning in THAT surname…) has developed a curious talent. At times of great personal stress, he turns into an animal – and for somebody who has a beloved brother in hospital, panicking parents, and a school bully on his tail, that’s a lot to deal with.

The first of a series, and Copeland’s debut, Charlie Changes Into A Chicken is, as I say, a determined book. I like that sort of a feel to something; this wants to be read, and doesn’t want to let its readers go without a fight. Copeland embraces every technique at his disposal to keep his readers, and it’s very nicely done. Confidently, too, and that’s something that says a lot about Copeland’s knowledge and belief in his fictional creation. It’s also very funny.

Paired with Sarah Horne’s fiercely dynamic illustration, it’s a potent mix. Horne has a lovely sense of movement and dynamism to her lines; there’s not one instance of her artwork that doesn’t push right to the edge of the page.

My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

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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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Girl Squads by Sam Maggs

Girl Squads: 20 Female Friendships That Changed History

Girl Squads: 20 Female Friendships That Changed History by Sam Maggs

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’ve been looking for something like Girl Squads for a very long time. This smart, chatty and furiously honest book is a treat because, unlike so many of the others out there, Girl Squads acknowledges the truth about women’s history. It is complex, fought for, and often overwritten by a cultural system which privileges other voices. I’m trying not to write The White Western Patriarchy here, but I’m sure you’ve figured that out by now.

What I loved about Girl Squads is that it’s not afraid of offering an opinion. There’s no romantic hagiographies here; history is rendered as a messy, knotty and occasionally deeply unsatisfying thing. The style is chatty, conversational, occasionally sliding a little too much towards the informal, but as a whole works perfectly. This is big sister history, told to you by somebody who wants you to think about the world and to fight for your place in it. And the women covered are remarkable. It’s split into sections covering Athlete Squads, Political and Activist Squads, Warrior Squads, Scientist Squads and Artist Squads, and covers women’s groups as diverse as The Haenyeo Divers to The Blue Stockings.

Interspersed throughout by Jenn Woodall’s sensitive and richly detailed illustrations (a small cameo to introduce each woman, and a lovely page to introduce each section), Girl Squads is a vibrant, powerful thing. It pays tribute to the complex lives of the women it celebrates and it manages to keep that complexity intact. Being female is a complex, wonderful thing. Not many books recognise that challenge or celebrate it. But Girl Squads does.

I am grateful to the publisher for a review copy.



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