Picture Books

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang

Ian Fleming, adapted by Peter Bentley, illus. Steve Antony, pub. Hachette Children’s Books

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is such a cheerful and interesting book, full of the adventures of the Pott family and the old car that Jemima and Jeremy Pott’s dad repairs. Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is so dirty and broken down, she is about to be sent to the scrapyard until Mr. Pott puts her back to rights.

When the Pott family go to the beach in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, they get stuck in a long traffic jam. A knob on the car’s dashboard flashes ‘PULL ME’ and when Mr Pott pulls it, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang begins to fly. But there’s nowhere for the car to land. The detailed illustration showing the car with wings and a propeller is exactly the kind of car every child would love to ride in. 

Then Chitty Chitty Bang Bang flies to an empty island where they all have fun until tired, they fall asleep on the sand. Only the car sees the mist drift in and the sea roll up the beach.  She blows her klaxon to wake the Pott family but now there’s not enough room to take off, so when a knob flashes on its dashboard saying ‘PRESS ME,’ Mrs Pott presses it and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang rolls into the sea, sailing through the misty darkness, huge ships around them.

They roll out of the sea onto a beach in France that has a cave. Only it isn’t a cave, it’s a tunnel and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang drives right into it, going round and round until they reach the end, when her headlights shine over a big pile of gold. Joe the Robber’s secret hideout! There is a brilliant illustration of Joe and his robbers. When the robbers escape in a van, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang chases after them. When they try to get away in a hot-air balloon, the car flies into the sky and cuts the balloon ropes sending Joe and his robbers tumbling into the sea where the police pull them out and take them away.

The book ends as excitingly as it begins with the President of France giving the Pott family and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang a special medal for catching the burglars.

This is such a great story and told so simply, a child would read it again and again. The richly detailed illustrations are in clear bright colours with much to look at and examine. The final double page illustration is lovely, with a huge white moon, a sparkling Eiffel Tower and the Pott family leaving in their magical, dramatic car that is Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.

Gwen Grant

Dance like a Flamingo

Moira Butterfield, illus. Claudia Boldt, pub. Welbeck

This book has the 'get up and go' that we all need in our 2020 lives!  The author takes readers on a journey, a journey where they will meet creatures from all over the world - from flamingos to elephants, penguins to lemurs. Combining factual non-fiction elements with a series of lively, upbeat story rhymes this is a picture book that will get readers of all ages on their feet - wiggling, shaking and dancing! If you need a little encouragement, beautiful illustrations introduce both the animals and the actions.

If your fellow readers are as taken with this book as mine, you might even find yourself working up a sweat whilst banking facts about each of your new-found animal friends.

 

This is the perfect book to take you out of your story-time comfort zone (on the sofa) and to get everyone laughing.

Equally enjoyable to read aloud, as a group activity or simply to be used as an exploration of illustrations for a pre-text reader, Dance like a Flamingo is a fun story and introduction to wildlife, plus a chance to get active.

 

Amy Ellis

Every Night is Pizza Night

K Kenji Lopez-Alt, illus. Gianna Ruggiero, pub. Norton Young Readers

Pipo thinks that pizza is the best food, but unfortunately this means that she will not eat anything else for her dinner. That is, until her mother raises the question “how do you know Pizza is best if you don’t try anything else?”

 

So prompted Pipo decides to undertake a scientific experiment to try and validate her opinion. She asks each of her friends what they love to eat and agrees to try some of their favourite dishes.

Given the multicultural nature of Pipo’s neighbourhood it is not surprising that she gets to test a wide range of amazing dishes. Many of the foods are family favourites, having been passed down for generations, so we discover (with Pipo) that there is an added reason for their popularity, beyond having a great taste.

This is a brilliant look at the way children can become ‘faddy’ about their food and it makes a great starting point for discussions about what we do and do not like and the reasons behind this. There is an excellent section which looks at how we like different foods depending on our mood; sometimes we want crisps or chocolate cake and other times it would be hotdogs, burgers or fish and chips. 

This story is an encouragement to give things a try. It is also about the delight of discovering that there are so many great tastes for us to indulge in.  An excellent read for reception and KS1, although it could be used for discussion further up the school.

Margaret Pemberton

Fish

Brendan Kearney, pub. DK

From the front cover onwards we are invited to share Brendan Kearney’s love of all things watery. Storytelling and artistic ability combine to tell a meaningful little tale about a profoundly big problem, pollution. Succinct text and intense graphic detail will suit multiple aged audiences that so often share a story session. The audience will take away with them the recycling mantra, how to recycle, repair and re-use, use recyclable goods and spread the word … job done.

Finn and his dog Skip take centre stage in the story. They fish together for a living until one day the fish have disappeared and the seals are looking sad. Skip dives in to investigate and returns covered in litter. They are overwhelmed with plastic rubbish. As there are no fish to fish they decide to spend their time collecting the rubbish, and their boat struggles back at the end of the day under the weight of it. The drawing of this will delight both young and old, packed with amusing detail. 

The beach cleaning team greet them on their return with offers of help and lots of explanations about how the rubbish got there, the damage it does to the inhabitants of the sea and its unmanageable behaviour. Everyone is wiser about micro plastic development and its ability to destroy our wildlife, our water system and even our food. We are left in no doubt that big changes start with small steps and that there are lots of things we can do immediately. There is no place for apathy and procrastination.

The four points of the recycling mantra follow and Finn confirms this by recycling everything he can, mending everything that can be fixed, finding ways of using what can’t be processed and inviting his friends and family to help clean up the beach.

Lots of positive things then happen, the fish return, the seals are happy, the crabs celebrate, and Finn and Skip have made new friends. A really happy message to take away from this lively little book.

Elizabeth Negus

Futuristic Fairy Tales: Goldilocks in Space

Peter Bently, illus. Chris Jevons, pub. Hachette Children’s Books

Goldilocks in Space became an instant hit in our household. Given the extreme love for fairytales my almost-4-year-old has, it's probably no surprise that she was very taken by this modern riff on the golden-haired girl's escapades.

 

This time she's on a mission to find her perfect planet. Setting off on her journey, Captain Goldilocks takes young readers on a rhyming adventure visiting planets on the way and assessing their relative merits. Turns out that maybe her 'just right' could be closer to home than she thinks...  

 

Illustrations of her intergalactic friends made for good talking points about space, stars and whether indeed aliens do exist? 

 

We lingered longer than average on the opening pages showing the whole galaxy - a great opportunity to introduce some of the more abstract topics around planets and stars. We joined in with gusto, panto style, with the 'too hard, too soft, too big, too small' moment, and we shared chuckles about planet names, then coming up with our own. 

 

As a parent, the subtle moral of the age old saying 'grass is always greener' also felt like a positive end to what is a really fun story. 

 

Amy Ellis

Girl From the Sea

Margaret Wild, illus. Jane Tanner, pub. Allen and Unwin

Girl From The Sea is a new picture book collaboration from Margaret Wild and Jane Tanner.  Regarded as two of Australia’s finest children’s book creators, this is their first joint project since 1984’s There’s a Sea in my Bedroom.

Girl from the Sea is an unusual picture book telling the haunting tale of a young ghost longing for home and acceptance. We are drawn into the story through monochrome images of the wild and restless sea and a shipwreck is hinted at. Images of swirling water begin to dominate and will resonate throughout the book.

The girl emerges from the sea glowing with an ethereal green light.  The simple lyrical text swells with her yearning and hope to be let in as she gazes at a loving family living by the sea.  She creeps closer, bringing the sea with her until images of water and sea creatures suffuse the page. The story ends on a hopeful note as the girl finds a way to connect with the family. 

This is a rich and enigmatic book that creates space for readers to develop their own interpretations. New and telling details emerge on each re-reading.  The interplay between the misty charcoal illustrations and the elliptical text creates an eerie and mysterious atmosphere. It is a text that could be used effectively for class discussions and could stimulate children to respond creatively.

If you have a family tradition of reading ghost stories during the festive period this could be a good choice for all the family to enjoy together.

Liz Speight

I Am One

Susan Verde, illus. Peter H Reynolds, pub. Abrams Books for Young Readers

The tagline to this title is ‘A Book of Action’.

The story starts with the small narrator wanting to make a difference and realising that beautiful things start with ‘just one…’  One seed, one note, one step… one gentle word. The narrator, who might be a boy or a girl, begins to explore the power of one action. Gathering support and building momentum, they reach out across the world, uniting with others. The difference this small person ultimately makes is to inspire others to create a beautiful garden together, with each person contributing according to their skills. Such a lovely, visual metaphor! 

The illustrator, Peter H Reynolds, dedicated the book to Greta Thunberg, ‘who showed the world the power of ONE young person’. His colourful, joyful illustrations are fresh and full of energy against a pure white background. A friendly font and text pared back for maximum clarity and impact means it can be read aloud or read alone. 

Children know we are living in a world full of cares and that there’s a lot of ‘sorting out’ to be done. At the end of the book, Susan Verde includes an ‘Author’s Note’. Addressing a slightly older child here, she explains that I Am One was inspired by a quote from the Dalai Lama: ‘Just as ripples spread out when a single pebble is dropped into water, the actions of individuals can have far-reaching effects.’ A guided meditation and self-reflection activity follow. For parents, carers and teachers, this is a really lovely resource for helping children with their mental well-being. In fact, it is an activity to bring focus and empowerment to anybody of any age, should they wish to try it!

I Am One is a call to arms – and not just for children. It is a timely reminder for everybody that we all have it in us to be activists. 

Jackie Spink

If You Come To Earth

Sophie Blackall, pub. Chronicle Books

‘Dear Visitor from Outer Space, if you come to Earth, here’s what you need to know…’  This is the way the narrator, Quinn, begins his letter. First, he pinpoints whereabouts Earth is located in space and, in an instant, the reader knows they are going to be embarking on a wonderful learning journey. 

Quinn zooms in on our planet, pointing out the range of places people live, from big cities to lone houses in the middle of nowhere; the assortment of shelters people call ‘home’ across the world; the different types of families, different bodies, different minds… you get the drift.  It’s brilliant. Quinn guides the visitor to expect abundant variation in clothing, transport, employment; he explains sizes, senses, sickness … the pages are crammed, illustrating the rich diversity and texture of the world we live in. The text is minimal, but there is a story on every page – so much to talk about - it begs to be shared.

There’s humour and warmth in the colourful, detailed illustrations. Each page is quirky and unpredictable in its layout and content. One page has a guide to sign language and another the braille alphabet, while yet another is filled with paint tubes with the colours you need to ‘paint everything in the world’. It would be rewarding to explore these pictures with children who are learning to speak English. 

In an extended author’s note at the end, Sophie Blackall explains how she was inspired to write this book following her travels around the world in support of UNICEF and Save the Children. She talked to children from many countries. Although there is no such thing as a ‘typical’ person, she says, ‘there’s something we all share – the planet on which we live.’ 

If You Come to Earth, is not only a beautiful, encyclopaedic guide to that planet, but a friendly prompt to cherish it. I cannot wait to be able to share this book with my five-year-old granddaughter. It’s a stunner!

Jackie Spink

Kind

Alison Green, foreword Axel Scheffler, illus. 38 Kind Illustrators, pub. Alison Green Books

Kind is a beautiful book all about making the world a better place by simple acts of kindness. Axel Scheffler has written a lovely foreword and his illustration – 38 Kind Illustrators were involved in this book – is the one that graces the cover and is instantly recognisable.

This colourful picture book brings together an anthology of suggestions of how we can be kind and help one another, as well as giving the reader a plethora of pictures to explore and enjoy as we spot how the many different animals are helping each other - there are even a few people. From sharing toys to helping those who no longer have a home. This is a book for now (and perhaps for many times past and future too).

Written in a gentle and warm way the prose will bring about recognition, questions and discussions: Animals need kindness too; Sometimes people have lived through very hard times and are brave and amazing; Isn’t it fun to see what we do the same and what we do differently?

Kind is helping raise money for Three Peas, a charity that gives vital practical help to people who have had to flee their homes – 50p from each book sold – and of which Axel Scheffler is patron. In the end pages of the book there is an easy-to-read description of the charity and where the money goes. Also, there is a list and short bio for each and every illustrator who worked on Kind – out of kindness. I have no doubt that children reading this will spot the style of their favourite picture book illustrators and possibly want to see more books by newly discovered ones.

You can’t go wrong with Kind; a reminder for us all, and a guide not only for the small but for us biggies who have perhaps forgotten the benefits of a simple act of kindness.

“Everyone can be kind

Even if they’re a bit small

Or a bit shy”

Beautifully written and adorned with incredible illustrations. This is perfect bedtime – anytime – reading and snuggling up too.

Anja Stobbart

Last: The Story of a White Rhino

Nicola Davies, pub. Tiny Owl

This story is based on the true events and life of a Northern White Rhino called Sudan. He is the last male of his kind and was captured as a youngster and kept in captivity. Eventually he is returned to where he was taken from, but because of his rarity had to be guarded 24 hours a day by rangers. It was hoped that Sudan would breed with two females, but unfortunately this was not successful and he sadly passed away without any living offspring.

The written words inside this book are from the perspective of the rhino and it is simple but very effective. This is due mainly to the fantastic illustrations that accompany it.

You cannot help but feel emotional when reading this book and feeling a deep sadness for his story. It covers difficult but relevant topics, such as poaching, in a sympathetic and understandable way.

At the beginning of the book it is explained that the words you can see in the pictures are “random snippets of advertising slogans, and short phrases from famous environmental speeches.” They are written in many different languages and aim to contrast the bleakness of advertising with inspirational words. Another effective contrast is the bleakness and muted colours used for the zoo pictures and the bright, vibrant colours of the pictures of the wild rhinos.

At the back of the book is the true story of Sudan in more detail and what they were trying to achieve by capturing him in the first place.

This book aims to encourage us all, one at a time, to change the world for the better. It is an important message that every child and adult should learn. This is a beautiful book that I hope will be enjoyed by many.

Victoria Wharam

Marney’s Mix-Up

Jane Rushmore, illus. Sally Darby, pub. Owlet Press

Autumn is coming and the squirrels are busy preparing for winter. This is Marney’s first year having to collect nuts, but he is having problems finding a supply; so, he decides to head off to the other side of the park in the hope of finding some.  When he is startled by a red furred stranger, speaking in a strange language, he is scared and asks his friends who it might be?

 

The answer he discovers brings him a new friend and a better understanding of the world around him.

Marney’s Mix-Up is a lovely story that blends together the concepts of sharing, learning about different communities and also about the seasons and how animals adapt to different conditions. The illustrations are bright, energetic and have a definite spark of humour about them. I particularly like the image of Marney in a fountain pond with his swimming goggles on.  There is a certain naivety about the illustrations, but the way that the characters are placed against a plain background gives them a 3-D quality that brings them alive.  This is a delightful story that will be enjoyed by young children, especially Reception and KS1 and which provides lots of opportunities for use in the classroom.

Margaret Pemberton

Merrylegs

Pam Smy, pub. David Fickling

Merrylegs is a riding school pony, fed up with his ordinary life of plodding and clomping around the stables. He wishes his life was more exciting. Merrylegs can’t help but compare himself to the tall and beautiful racehorses who dash by. His friend Feathers, a bird, cannot convince Merrylegs that the children love to ride him. Merrylegs has closed himself off from feeling anything other than sadness and doubt. When the fair comes to town, buddies Merrylegs and Feathers venture along to see it.

Merrylegs is mesmerized by the attractions and, most of all, by a carousel of beautiful, painted horses. Merrylegs notices how happy the children are, but refuses to believe Feathers when he tells him that the children are just as happy riding on his back. Merrylegs tries to be just like the carrousel horses by running alongside, but becomes exhausted and fully fed up with his lot.

But, in the hush of the night, ‘when stars start to glitter and the moon shines bright,’ the true magic of the story begins. Merrylegs sets off on an adventure with one the carousel horses, that changes his whole outlook and gives him the courage to see that he has been loved all along. Merrylegs is filled with dreams and a new belief in himself.

Pam Smy’s beautiful text and stunning illustrations marry together magnificently and create a magical atmosphere. It is difficult to not root for Merrylegs and wish that he would believe in himself. As such, when he sets off on a special moon light adventure, and begins to see himself as others do, one can only delight in Merrylegs’ happiness.

A recommended read-aloud book for children interested in ponies, horses and night-time magic!

 

Evelyn Bookless

The Midnight Fair

Gideon Sterer, illus. Mariachiara Di Giorgio, pub. Walker Books

I don’t know how you feel about wordless picture books, but I love them – what a fantastic opportunity they present to the reader to use their imagination, time and time and time again. Never be afraid of a book with no words, pictures are there to be read as much as words are and after all we are told that a picture can tell a thousand stories so why don’t you try? This book is a delightful place to start. Off we go to the fun fair, The Midnight Fair.

The setting is spectacular, it is also surreal and extremely cinematic as it introduces us to the secret life of a selection of animals in its filmic pages, moving seamlessly across the paper, absorbing mind and eyes as you turn the pages (which at times it is easy to forget to do being so absorbed by each and every one).

Step away from the city and into the countryside. Hold on though. Is this the countryside or an in-between place? Time for your imagination to take over here. Discover a fairground but one with a difference for as night falls this one is empty, curious? Be prepared for a lovely big surprise as all of a sudden, with the blink of an eye, the turn of a page, the fair comes to life, the unbelievable happens and somehow it all becomes believable. As the animals emerge from the trees. A brave racoon makes the first step and pulls a lever but what magic will this unleash? Can you tell? What happens if you change the story? Rides explode into life with glorious bursts of colour, now it is time for fun – will you join in?

This story asks that ever-enchanting question – what happens when the humans are in bed? The answer is up to you to imagine, guided by some favourite fairground rides, stands and games. With so much to follow and spot, this book may make its reader sleepy after so much action – perfect for bedtimes – but they will never tire of wanting more and nor will you.

Louise Ellis-Barrett

The Nine Lives of Furry Purry Beancat. The Captain’s Cat

Philip Ardagh, illus. Rob Biddulph, pub. Simon & Schuster Children's Books

First volume of a series aimed at 5+, The Nine Lives of Furry Purry Beancat wins its readers through a charming cat protagonist who will stay in your hearts well after the book is finished.

Philip Ardagh picks up finely realistic traits of cats to create a lovable character who wakes up from her catnaps in different worlds each time. In every world, she has a life in which she is recognized as a familiar presence, despite her having no memory of it at all. The interplay between the familiar and the strange at the start of her adventure is an engaging narrative feature which stirs the imagination.

As well as its readers, Furry Purry Beancat wins all the other main characters in the story: her favourite Captain Topaz, the funny little mice living aboard the pirate ship Rapier, and even the big and muscly Ten Tun, a member of One-Eyed Bart’s crew of pirates attacking the Rapier.

 

At the very start, the story does not hold a fast pace, which at times lets the reader’s attention wander, but the rhythm catches up in the second half of the book when Furry Purry Beancat concocts a plan to save the ship.

Rob Biddulph opted for computer style illustrations in black and white which are a perfect to and complement the narration.

The book wraps up with Furry Purry Beancat following her tail around three times, and falling asleep. What will come of her next? I look forward to finding out in the next volume, The Railway Cat.

Francesca Magnabosco

Pirate Stew

Neil Gaiman, illus. Chris Riddell, pub. Bloomsbury Children’s Books

Neil Gaiman is a multi-award-winning writer of both picture books, middle grade fiction and numerous books for adults, team him with Chris Riddell, author, illustrator and political cartoonist and you have a match made in heaven – at least in my opinion and so it is a great pleasure for me to bring you this review and to be able to add yet another fantastic title to my bookshelf.

From its cover, having spent many minutes admiring its sheer vivacity and detail, to the story held within the pages this book is a delight. So, on having managed to actually open it up and then navigating all the intricate details not to be missed before the story-proper begins – yes I love to read the dedications and admire the end pages as well as the flaps! But before I get to the story allow me a moment to backtrack, as I was saying look at the cover, please do take some time to do this and put into your mind each of the characters you see there, try and create personalities for them and then wait to see if they will match those in the story or if, like me, you will need to keep going back to check!

Right, to the story, sorry I am just so very excited about every aspect of this one! Be prepared for jollity (this is after all a pirate story), delicious rhymes, rollicking adventure and wicked illustration. Be prepared for colour, for action. Meet Long John McRon, ship's cook and chief babysitter. What is a pirate to do when complete with a crew he has two children in tow? Make pirate stew of course. How does this happen? Heavy pestles and leeks (but not in vessels), seeds that feed the parrots, silver spoons, a good stir with a pirate sword, and on the riotous cookery lesson goes … Want to know the outcome? Will the children become pirates or the pirated revert to children? Dive in, arm yourself and be ready for silliness, adventure, fun and wickedness (of course). Joyful, quirky, laugh-out-loud tongue-twistingly funny this book is the perfect gift to yourself or any young reader and will start (or continue) their reading journey with a true bang!

Louise Ellis-Barrett

The Song of the Nightingale

Tanya Landman, illus. Laura Carlin, pub. Walker Books

This is the story of the creation of the colours of the world and how each animal, insect and landscape got its uniqueness.

The world started off as a colourful place, but the twist to the story is that the creatures who lived there were dull and drab. The story is based around the ‘painter’ who decorates all of the creatures on the earth. However, when the painter thinks they are finished, a small bird appears who has been hiding from all of the commotion throughout the day. There is no paint left except a little drop of gold that the painter places in the back of the bird’s throat. This gives the bird the most beautiful voice.

There were magical sections of storytelling and I particularly enjoyed the rhyming section used to describe the animals. It was very effective, and I wouldn’t have been disappointed if this had appeared in other parts of the book.

I read this book with a child who is in year 6 and asked them what they thought. Overall, she enjoyed the book but felt that if she was younger and was using just the pictures to work out the story, it would have been a bit confusing, so this is definitely a story to enjoy reading out loud to your young children, where discussion can be had. The drawings are simple and child-like giving them a certain charm that will appeal to some. They are bright and colourful and project happiness. She also described the story as getting ‘a bit chaotic in places, but in a good way!’ as it showed the excitement amongst the animals.

The message that we both heard in this book was that whatever colour you are, you are beautiful. It also showed that if you wait long enough and are patient, you will be rewarded. We particularly liked how the little nightingale was plain, but we could see it was beautiful from the inside.

Victoria Wharam & Seren

The Stone Giant

Anna Höglund, pub. Gecko Press

The first thing that strikes you, as soon as you pick up this picture book, is the stunning set of pictures within its pages. Anna Höglund both wrote and illustrated this book, and it is so apt that she chose the old traditional technique of engraving to compliment the retelling of an old, traditional Swedish fairy-tale.

It is a story told with an undercurrent of darkness and dread threaded throughout, analogous to other fairy tales. In particular, the similarity to Little Red Riding Hood walking through the woods, is very evident in the middle of the story when the little girl, wearing bright red, is walking through a dark gloomy forest to find her missing father. What has happened to him? He was supposed to go and fight a giant that had been turning people into stone but he hadn’t returned, leaving the little girl all alone.

The other little detail that you notice is the tiny blue bird that follows the little girl everywhere. Why is it there? Is it a symbol that all will be well?

What we do know is that the small child musters some big bravery to set out on her adventure to find her father. She has to use some cunning to outwit the giant and save not just her father, but others who have been turned to stone.

This story is about finding the strength within, to do things that are perhaps a little scary, in order to survive.

It is wonderfully written with each paragraph set out like a stanza of a poem, in the centre of each page. The creative use of poetic features produces amazing imagery such as ‘The water was as black and shiny as oil’.

It is a book to add to any child’s collection and is certainly a must read aloud book.

Claire Webb

The Teeny Weeny Genie

Julia Donaldson, illus. Anna Currey, pub. Macmillan Children’s Books

This is a charming tale, following the highs and lows of the genie as he is released from his quiet teapot life by Old MacDonald.

In true Julia Donaldson style, clever nods to well-known fairy tale characters weave this story together with others, yet The Teeny Weeny Genie is a unique tale that captivates younger readers.

The title itself even raises a little smile before the first page is turned. In what feels a departure from more recent releases from Donaldson - the inimitable lilt and rhythm - this story is at times a wander through both rhyme and prose without a central chorus. Yet, it hangs together as one narrative and kept my avid pre-reader rapt throughout. 

Laughs and shouts at the genie's magical rhyming spells ensued, and plenty of opportunities to join in with the noise of chugging tractors, tooting trumpets and loud whistles were duly welcomed. As the story closes, we both feel a definite sense of endearment to our new diminutive friend, and discussion opens as to what his next adventure might be.

Anna Currey's illustrations bring the story to life beautifully, with some whole pages devoted to showing the action in full colour. This story feels like it will be one that grows with us, and becomes a firm favourite in our ever-growing library of Julia Donaldson classics. 

Amy Ellis

To the Island

Patricia Forde, illus. Nicola Bernardelli, pub. Little Island Books

Commissioned by the Galway 2020 European Capital of Culture programme, To the Island celebrates Galway children’s author Patricia Forde’s love of islands, both real and imaginary.

According to Irish legend, Hy Basil is a magical island off the coast of Galway, said to appear once every seven years. The island is shown on old maps from the fourteenth century up to the 1800s and now, in 2020, is captured beautifully in To the Island

Guided by the pull of the magic in the air and the magic in her own heart, the young Fia leaves the comfort of her bed to journey to the water. As her travels take her across the stars, Fia is soon transported to Hy Basil where she discovers the secrets of the island, from its magical creatures to its waters laced with silver. As she dances across the island, readers are invited to celebrate every new discovery with Fia as we share her awe and amazement.

The mystical island of Hy Basil is brought to life by the stunning artwork and colour palette of Nicola Bernardelli which beautifully compliments this legendary tale.

To the Island is the perfect book to transport your young reader to a whole new world, fuelling both imagination and curiosity. 

After reading this tale, I am keen to further research traditional Irish legends. 

Ellie Egleton

What’s in the Truck?

Philip Ardagh, illus. Jason Chapman, pub. Faber & Faber

A menagerie of animals are traveling in a fleet of different vehicles along steep winding roads encountering various characters and experiencing many misadventures in this amusing, energetic, and colourful picture book which has a surprising and entertaining twist as the different modes of transport appear from within each other like vehicular Russian dolls; a series of nesting wheels, and, for added pleasure, not all appearances are physically realistic.  So, for example, a cow driving a white stretched limo suddenly appears out of the back of a much smaller yellow turbo-charged racer driven by a horse and a frog riding a blue scooter appears out of a box on the back of a motorbike driven by a ginger cat.

Ardagh’s rhyming text gives no indication of where they are all going but eagle-eyed readers will spot little clues among Chapman’s vivid lively images like balloons hanging from a road sign. As they travel to their destination they will also spot clever little visual jokes like a hamster walking along the roadside with two centipedes on leads or a badger standing on a barrier filming one of the vehicle’s appearances on their phone. 

The rhyming text, as you would expect from a Roald Dahl Funny Prize-winning author, is joyously silly and entertaining and is enhanced brilliantly by the dynamic illustrations. I especially liked the lines rhyming heathers and leathers and the appearance of a green arm and four green fingers appearing out of a box in the foreground.  The sense of energy, movement, and fun bursts from the page.

There is also a nice feminist angle to the story as all the characters arrive at their destination of Princess Maxie’s Palace for her birthday party, we see a dog wearing a tiara and a pink tutu and as the guests present her with a key in a box we could expect her to be receiving a pink sports car or some such gendered vehicle. However, as she emerges from her garage/workshop with a spanner in her hand to accept her present she squeals with delight as climbs into the driving seat of the big red truck with giant wheels which started the whole story off.

This title feels like a good companion to Ardagh’s Bunnies on the Bus and also reminds me of Jez Alborough’s Duck in the Truck. It is a nonsensical exuberantly jolly lovely book.

Natalie J. McChrystal Plimmer

While We Can’t Hug

Eoin McLaughlin, illus. Polly Dunbar, pub. Faber & Faber

As more and more books naturally begin to appear based on the events of 2020, I think this sequel to the 2019 picturebook The Hug will stand out as being one of the best.  It is cheerful, cute, kind, and thought-provoking and as it never directly mentions Covid and everything that goes with it, it has a wider scope and life than other titles that deal directly with the subject.

Hedgehog and Tortoise, who in the previous book desperately searched for somebody to give them a hug and delightfully found each other, are now catching up but this time around they are unable, for reasons unspecified, to hug each other so they must be creative in finding other ways to greet each other and show their love.

And so, through making funny faces, writing letters, blowing kisses, painting pictures (rainbows, which is a nice topical image), and more they reinforce their relationship, and the book concludes with the simple but effective sentiment: “they could not touch, they could not hug, but they both knew they were loved”.

I gave this book in the summer as gifts to my four-year-old niece and two-year-old nephew as a means to explain that despite being unable to physically touch or at times even see their wider families we could do other things to replace cuddles and so on.  Not only did they enjoy the story and the characters, but we were inspired by some of the activities shown in the book and also made some of our own up.  For example, they were already aware of butterfly and eskimo kisses so we tried distanced ones which resulted in funny faces being pulled and with that silliness and laughter. 

I like that the reasons why Hedgehog and Tortoise can’t touch are not explained as it gives the book a typical children’s book feel – things just are in that book’s world and there is no need for our reasoning or reality to rear their heads.  It also allows the book to be used for other reasons, such as with families separated by physical distance for example across countries.

The illustrations are perfect for the sentiment of the book – romantic, gentle, cuddly watercolours.  It is so sweet but not in a sickly, over-the-top way. For me, this picture book would be a great addition to a time capsule made about life in 2020, it is a perfect representation of the sadness but also the hope and fulfilment of finding a way through the frightening restricting world that this year has brought.  It is a hug in book format.

Natalie J. McChrystal Plimmer

Who’s Your Real Mum?

Bernadette Green, illus. Anna Zobel, pub. Scribble

What do you think about when you think of family? Mum, Dad and kids? Mum, Nan and a baby? Brothers and sisters looking after each other? Families, today, come in all shapes and sizes and this book demonstrates just that.

Written in response to her own children’s situation, this book is ideal for introducing children to different social norms in an easy-to-understand way and will prompt dialogue that will lead to the exploration of the diversity that makes up ‘family’.

Bernadette Green’s debut picture book, Who’s Your Real Mum? is a conversation between two children, Elvi and Nicholas . Nicholas is interested by the fact that Elvi has got two mums and he is really inquisitive to know why? He repeatedly asks the same question, all the way through the book, while Elvi repeatedly makes up fantastical reasons as to who her ‘real’ mum is, such as her real mum ‘teaches spiders the art of the web’! Nicholas knows these reasons are pure fantasy and it is only when he gets so frustrated with her, that Elvi reveals the secret…

Family is all about people who love and care for each other and that’s what both of Elvi’s mums do for her.

It is written in such a way that, with every repetition of Nicholas’ question, you can feel his exasperation grow, while Elvi is ‘quietly sniggering’ to herself as she teases him and prolongs his agony.

It is a book of one child’s discovery that family simply means love and another child’s ready acceptance of that, in whatever form it takes.


The use of colours by Anna Zobel is pure genius – contrasting the imagination of Elvi in different hues of blue with the warm yellow tones of the real world, giving a sense of warmth, joy and contentment.

Beautifully written and wonderfully illustrated, this book is an absolute delight to read! Loved it!

Claire Webb

Wild is the Wind

Grahame Baker-Smith, pub. Templar Books

Young Cassi floats across the sky in a hot air balloon as she witnesses the flight of a swift recently nursed back to health. Through storms and calm, above oceans and deserts, readers are taken on the incredible journey of migrating swifts and experience the wonders of the wind in all its forms.

Wild is the Wind is the latest lyrical, non-fiction picture book from Greenaway award-winning author and illustrator, Grahame Baker-Smith. In this fantastical exploration of migration, readers travel the globe through colourful landscapes and glide through scenes on the wind witnessing what the swifts pass on their long journey.

With an incredible attention to detail – the butterfly trees not yet ready to release their seeds, the still eye of a cyclone – the story illustrates the power that the wind holds in all things great and small. In both acknowledging the wind’s past deeds and showing how wind is used today, Wild is the Wind is at once a reminder and a promise of all that the wind holds for Earth and humanity.

But at the core of the story is the incredible migration of swifts – three months, 8,000 miles. This monumental achievement is beautifully illuminated in the joy their arrival brings to children on opposite ends of the Earth as they symbolize the beginning of spring.

Wild is the Wind is a thoughtful, often abstract story that prompts questions about migration and instincts, wind and weather, history and geology as well as different societies. The vibrant colour palette and bold, often dramatic scenes draw attention and offer secrets to discover within the illustrations.  This is a book that can be used in a variety of classroom discussions and an opening for further exploration of many subjects.

Stephanie Ward

The Wolf’s Secret

Myriam Dahman and Nicolas Digard, illus. Julia Sarda, pub. Orchard Books

The enticing board cover of The Wolf’s Secret is so beautiful with its dark background, shining gold lettering, the lovely dots and dashes of gold gleaming amongst the darkness and the two golden eyes that look remarkably like a wolf’s eyes, any child would want to read it.

The wolf lives in a cold dark forest, ringed by huge snowy mountains. All the animals are afraid of him and he has no friends. But the wolf has a secret. One day, he heard such sweet and tender singing, it beamed into his cold heart like sunshine. The singer lives in a wooden house in the middle of the forest, caring for her sick father. Every day, the young woman goes to the well for water. There is a captivating illustration of a dancing line of music streaming out behind her.

 

The wolf follows her until one day she doesn’t come. Standing outside the wooden house, he hears her crying because her father’s bed is empty. The wolf longs to comfort her but he can’t speak.  Sadly, he goes out hunting and catches a rabbit. Just as he is about to eat the rabbit, it changes into a wizard who tells him to ‘Follow the music’ and then he will be able to speak.  Here is a glorious picture of a wizard made of leaves, tiny bells and long thin twigs. 

The music takes the wolf to the top of the mountain where he finds a golden egg with a small bell on a strap around it. He puts the bell round his own neck and finds that now he can speak. Hurrying back to the wooden house, the wolf comforts the sad young woman with stories of the forest. But when he goes hunting, the jingling bell warns the animals and the wolf catches nothing. Soon, he is so thin, he collapses and can no longer speak at all.

Will the wolf take off the bell?  

This story of loneliness, of willingness to change and of how friendship can overcome any difficulty has great appeal. The illustrations are wonderful with a beautiful wolf and dear little owls in a tangled forest. I love the magic which gives a little unfamiliar jolt to this modern fairy tale.

Gwen Grant

The Worry (Less) Book

Rachel Brian, pub. Wren & Rook

All children, and adults, feel worried and anxious from time to time.

This book provides a great introduction to the subject by explaining just what anxiety is and how we can cope with it. The first page sets out exactly what the book can do … it explains ‘how your body reacts to worries’, helps you understand what anxiety is and how to recognise it, and, usefully, gives ‘ideas for calming yourself.’

The book also makes it clear that it can’t ‘tell you not to worry’, ‘pick up your dirty socks’ or ‘make all anxiety disappear.’

The potentially difficult subject matter is handled very well and with a light touch making it an enjoyable and easy read. The humour, together with the cartoon style illustrations and text make the book additionally appealing and accessible to young readers.

This is a book that I would recommend for every classroom and bookshelf. It’s one that can be shared with a class or just placed conveniently on a shelf for anyone to pick up and casually read.

Vicky Harvey