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Picturebook Reviews

The Ballad of Cactus Joe

Lily Murray, illus. Clive McFarland, pub. Oxford Children’s Books

A beauty of children’s literature, especially picturebooks, is that they can be about anything at all, and in the case of Lily Murray and Clive McFarland’s new collaboration it’s a gruff, prickly, lonely cactus. One which is actually inspired by the real Saguaro cactus, which is found in Arizona and Mexico, the iconic cactus of Western films. The endpapers explain how the different features of the Saguaro and all the characters that appear in the story are based on reality. This makes it not just an amusing and entertaining read but also fascinating and a means of cultivating an interest in this plant in particular, and botany and nature as a whole.

 

Cactus Joe is a lonesome, gruff, prickly character, he resembles a cowboy from old westerns like Humprey Bogart or John Wayne, complete with his bright orange Stetson and checkered neckerchief. He sings his ballad about being a rough, tough prickle machine standing alone until the day he dies until a woodpecker comes to him with a pact – he will eat the critters that feast on Cactus Joe in return for a space in one of Joe’s ‘arms’ for his nest. Cactus Joe agrees but is keen to keep his grumpy façade going! Eventually he becomes a home for various birds, repeating his not so lonely ballad with each new bird added to the verse.

 

Cactus Joe’s temper gets the better of him one day when he is swarmed by birds all wanting to make a home in him. He tells them all to go. The illustrations here are especially dramatic looking down at Joe from above, the flock of the birds swirling around him, you can hear their noise and understand Joe’s feeling of being smothered. On my initial look at the book, I was very unsure about the illustrative style, it has quite a cartoony, graphic garish style but the more I looked at the pictures and read the story the more I enjoyed his artwork. The use of colour especially; the purples, yellows, pinks, and florescent orange really capture the intense heat of the desert landscape.

 

With a sweet ending, this is both entertaining and informative; a lovely, unusual, and surprisingly appealing read.

Natalie McChrystal Plimmer

The Boy Who Loves to Lick the Wind

Fiona Carswell, illus. Yu Rong, pub. Otter-Barry Books

A boy watches the boy next door as he sticks his tongue out in the wind and asks his neighbour about it. She explains about licking the wind and invites him to go with them to the beach, where the winds are best. The boy next door doesn’t always use words, and wears ear-defenders against loud noises, but he enjoys the ride to the beach and is delighted to see the sand and the sea. Our boy wants to collect shells, but the boy next door likes to throw stones into the sea: “Big splash!” He is upset when his sandwich gets sandy, but his Mum knows how to calm him. Our storyteller builds a castle of stones, and digs a little moat, but the boy next door starts to pick up the stones, so they both throw stones into the sea until the castle is gone. They jump and spin and yell into the wind, and splash in the shallows, until the Mum says they’re going home in 5 minutes, and she sets a timer on her phone. They are both sad to leave the beach, but on top of the dunes they lick the wind, and it’s the best feeling in the world. At school on the next day, they report on licking the wind, which the boy next door demonstrates, and at playtime ALL the classmates have fun licking the wind.

 

Fiona Carswell has an autistic son, so she knows what she is writing about in this her first book, though she does a lot of other writing in her work in book promotion. She also promotes Autism Awareness Week in Scotland every year, and there is a page at the back explaining about autism, and how some people are different, but she emphasises that we are all different from each other in some ways. Yu Rong’s illustrations have twice been shortlisted for the Yoto Kate Greenaway/Carnegie Medal, in 2022 and 2023, and she illustrates this story of inclusivity and friendship with warmth and sensitivity.

Diana Barnes

Detective Catz and the Missing Nut

Marjoke Henrichs, pub. Scallywag Press

Have you ever aspired to be a detective? What skills do you think you would need? Well Catz practises the skills of clue finding, disguise and making himself invisible, so that he can be a REAL detective!

 

Before the story even begins, you are indulged in a vibrancy of colour only matched by a rainbow, with the splashes of colour oozing out of the inside cover as Majoke Henrichs’ characters playfully whizz into life, on the page. These are Catz’s friends and they all have a part to play in his success as a detective.

 

As we follow Catz on his mission to find his friend, Flossy’s nut, he starts to believe that he isn’t cut out to be a detective, as he just can’t find it, despite discovering some of his other friends’ lost items, on the way. He is so down hearted and feels such a failure that he decides to give up on his dream of becoming a real detective and decides to tell his friends.

 

But he doesn’t remain sad for long, as his friends are delighted that he has found their treasures and encourages him to carry on. As in turns out, Flossy had left her nut in a very special box that required a key to open it, but she’s now lost that too! Did Catz find the key on his journey? You really will have to read this delightful book yourself to find out.

 

The simple narrative is wonderful, and the characters have a child-like quality, each one of them wanting to help each other, demonstrating kindness to one another. Their encouragement makes Catz determined to not give up, showing resilience to the very end. What better personal qualities would you ever want to instil in a child? The illustrations compliment the story telling so well, with the use of the happy, bright colours that children would often use themselves. The use of colour and the clever child-like illustrations have a sense of liveliness about them – you could almost imagine that the trees and toadstool are alive too.

 

I thoroughly enjoyed this book and will definitely be reading it to my children!

Claire Webb

The Golden Hare

Paddy Donnelly, pub. The O’Brien Press

I always look forward to books published by The O’Brien Press, knowing that they’ll be an engrossing read and if they have illustrations I look forward not only to the pictures but also to the text, both of which always stand head and shoulders above many books for young readers.

 

The Golden Hare is no exception, and Paddy Donnelly has proved once again to be an exceptionally brilliant illustrator, as well as those books in which he has shown to be an excellent author-illustrator. His awards for his work show us just how much he is revered throughout Europe and beyond and published in at least a dozen languages. The Golden Hare is an outstanding story. Donnelly lives in Belgium now but, as his name suggests, he is Northern Irish through and through, and the people and stories, especially those about nature and magic reflect his love and knowledge of his homeland. His original hometown is very near to Rathlin Island, right at the very northern most part of Ireland, and not far from the Giant’s Causeway. At the end of the book we learn that Rathlin Island is rather special because of the creatures which live in and around it, in the water, in the sky, and on the land, and amongst those are the Golden Hares themselves. The story itself is followed by pages which tell readers about the creatures which are found there – again excellent information and splendid pictures. Come on, readers will say, tell us about the story! Well, it’s a delightful story about a Grandad and his grand-daughter Meara. Meara would love to see some of the amazing animals she’s heard of, like sharks and giraffes, but Grandad doesn’t think they’ll meet them on a walk where he lives, so instead they set out to find a Golden Hare, a fantastical shape-shifter animal, but very rarely seen. They encounter many wonderful real creatures and as a result Meara falls in love with nature.

 

Readers will also fall in love with the beautiful illustrations, and there’s so much to find, learn and love in this magical story.

Bridget Carrington

Help! We Need a Story

James Harris, illus. Mariajo Ilustrajo, pub. Little Tiger

This is a picture book for any child (or children) who wails about being bored! Artie the macaque is peacefully drawing when June Baboon (the sort with a bare bottom) appears, complaining of boredom. In simple rhyme, other animals, including tamarins and capybaras (wonderful words!) also join in. In fact, Maud the bear thoroughly enjoys sitting and moaning. Quickly, Artie makes a book with them all in, and they crowd around to see.

 

Although the title is quite dull: ‘The Story of Our Morning’ they find that they are the heroes of an imaginative story featuring a dragon, a lion with gold wings, robot sharks, zombie hens, going into space, under water, and on a desert island where they eat pink ice cream. The next day, they are all happily inventing stories and drawing their own characters.

 

The end papers give simple outlines of the animals, so that children can copy and embellish their own characters. Mariajo Ilustrajo is one of those talented artists who can create an expression in a few dots and lines on a face, and James Harris, whose website proclaims that he is “an award-winning children’s author, pole-vaulter wizard, exaggerator etc” (two of these claims are true), has written two junior fiction books that are proclaimed by reviewers as bonkers. This is evidently his first picture book, and is only a little bit bonkers, in Artie’s imaginative story.

Diana Barnes

I Love Books

Mariajo Ilustrajo, pub. Frances Lincoln Children’s Books

I wonder what it would be like to not like books. In fact, what would it be like to hate books? To never pick one up and enter the world of your own limitless imagination!

 

Well, the inside front cover of I Love Books, shows you some of the more mundane activities you can involve yourself in, illustrated in grayscale, of course, to emphasis their boringness!

 

As you turn the pages of this story, you meet a little girl, who does just that – never picks up a book because she hates reading! Unfortunately for her, she is tasked to read a whole book, yes, a WHOLE book, over the school holidays. Not knowing where to begin, she is reluctantly taken to the daunting library.

 

At this point in the book, there is very little colour, in the illustrations, save the little girl’s bright orange socks, but on the double page spread, showing the library book shelves, an aqua and starry wisp of a story is seen escaping the pages of a book – is this the book she is going to choose? What might it be about? Will she enjoy it?

 

As she starts to read, she is taken on an adventure into her own imagination, and colours start to burst from the pages of I hate books, as she meets many interesting characters and discovers many different places such as a ‘pirate lake’, a ‘quicksand valley’ and even an ‘enchanted frog forest’.

 

The grayscale, at the beginning of the book, is transformed into a rainbow of colours as the girl’s enjoyment of reading develops throughout the story until, on the inside back cover, you see all the different characters that the little girl reads about – she becomes so engrossed that she just can’t put her books down!

 

It is wonderfully written, with humour, and the illustrations are bright and colourful. You will love the very expressive faces of the characters – showing what they are thinking and feeling.

 

It is such a joy to read and has a very important message about the importance of books and the enjoyment you can get from them; how you can be taken on fantastical adventures just by reading words on a page that unleash the power of your imagination. If you are a reluctant reader or know someone who is, then this is the book to start with and you won’t look back!

Claire Webb

The Library Mouse

Frances Tosdevin, illus. Sophia O’Connor, pub. Uclan Publishing

Quill the mouse lives in a hole, but most importantly this hole is in what appears to be a children’s library. He spends his days surrounded by books, listening to stories being read to enthralled audience of small children. However, Quill has a dream, he loved telling stories, so wondered if he could become and author and read his stories to the children. Eventually Quill finished his book, but how was he to get it read?

 

A mouse’s voice is too soft to be heard and he couldn’t get the pages to be seen. When the cleaner throws the pages into the bin, he yells for her to check what she has done; but he then despairs and hides in his hole. However, miracles do happen and next day, he finds the cleaner reading through a little book that he recognizes; she has a hearing aid and that had picked up his final shouted comments. With a little help from his new friend, Quill is able to follow his dream of writing and of helping others achieve their dream as well.

 

Every now and then you come across a book that really has a little touch of magic, and this is one of those. The short rhyming text works beautifully and the very soft muted colour used for the illustrations really bring the story alive. Quill and his spider friend, Leggsy, have real character and I love the pen which is tucked behind Quill’s right ear.

 

It is a story about not giving in and reaching for your dream, something that we all need reminding about. Above all it is about friendship, helping others and realizing the magic that stories can bring to people’s lives.

Margaret Pemberton

My Friend Andy

Emma Chinnery, pub. Little Tiger

Fluffy, a cute little dog, is the narrator in this lovely picturebook, who tells us the story of once getting separated from her best friend Lily and Lily’s Mum on their daily trip to the park.  Scared and lost in the city, Fluffy is found by her friend Andy, the larger dog, that her family pass during their journey, and together with his dad, they keep Fluffy safe and warm, until they can reunite her with her people.

 

With themes of friendship and caring for each other running throughout, Chinnery also explores the issue of homelessness in a subtle and thought-provoking way because Fluffy’s saviours, Andy and his dad, just happen to be homeless. Ironically, Fluffy initially passes them busking outside an estate agents called Home; but is never allowed to play with Andy. They take Fluffy to their ‘home’ in an underpass, which looks magical with the glow of headlights and rainbow graffiti. Fluffy sees how Andy’s dad tucked them up and sang songs to them until they fell asleep, and the illustrations depict dad as being gentle, kind, and in the following pages, playful as they spend the day trying to find Fluffy’s family which includes rolling in mud and going for a ride in a shopping trolley.

 

After finding a missing poster with Fluffy’s address on (another reminder of the power of home), Fluffy is very happy to be reunited with Lily but misses Andy and his dad. In the final charming pages, which are especially poignant to a dog person, Fluffy tells Lily all about her adventures and missing Andy and dad but doubts how much Lily understands dog language. However Fluffy concludes that maybe Lily “does understand dog language after all” when back on their daily walk Lily’s mum doesn’t walk straight past Andy and dad as usual but stops to share a drink and a chat.

 

The display of kindness and friendship is beautiful, Chinnery is a lovely writer and a gorgeous illustrator, filling her pictures with lots of interesting details such as the individual characters in the city crowd scenes, the coordinating outfits worn by mother and daughter, or the use of lighting to contrast between Andy, dad, and Fluffy under the streetlamp and Fluffy and Lily cosy and safe lit by the bedside lamp.

 

With its dedication to homeless people and their canine companions Chinnery has created a delightful book which works on many levels: not only is it an engaging story about a little dog’s adventures but it is also a gentle and insightful book about homelessness and as such is a welcome tool to use when talking about such issues with young children.

Natalie McChrystal Plimmer

The Prickletrims Go Wild

Marie Dorleans, pub. Floris Books

There can be no doubt that the Prickletrims family is very proud of their scrupulously maintained garden. This family takes a lot of pride in their garden, which is characterized by straight edges, neatly mowed lawns and perfectly shaped topiaries, all of which they take great care of. As far as they are concerned as long as the nature is kept under strict control, they are able to enjoy it to the fullest.

 

It is only when their gardener, fed up with the strict rules that have been set, suddenly quits that the Prickletrims garden is left to grow wild. Initially the family is overwhelmed by the garden that invades their home, but as it grows wilder and more natural the family gradually learns to love and appreciate the garden that has become their own.

 

The Prickletrims’ house, and chimney become filled with enormous plants and flowers that are growing both inside and outside the building, this is sure to delight children, especially when they notice all the animals moving in with the plants and flowers! In this delightfully fun and distinctive picture book, you will find a variety of bright, quirky illustrations as well as gentle humour throughout.

 

This is a playful celebration of untamed nature, from Marie Dorleans, award-winning creator of The Night Walk. The recommended reading age is 4+ and I agree, it is perfect for younger readers who will delight in its authors vivid imagination.

Katy Ralph

Pink Trucks

Sam Clarke, illus. Cory Reid, pub. Five Quills

Have you ever seen a pink truck? Stink loves trucks and has trucks of all different colours: red, black, blue, white, but doesn’t have a pink truck. The issue is that Stink likes pink!

 

He searches everywhere he can think and also asks his friends but still cannot find the pink truck that he desires.

 

Sam Clarke challenges gender norms in Pink Trucks by using the simple stereotype of genders preferring certain colours and objects, a concept that is relatable for the young readers who would enjoy this book. The story is great as it shows the support that Stink receives from family members in his search for a pink truck as well as showing how creativity can be the answer to many problems. Stink’s sister is able to encourage Stink to use recyclable materials to produce the truck that he wants which encourages young readers to reuse materials rather than to waste them – another message which is really positive.

 

The rhyming patterns that are consistent throughout the book make this a fun, easy and memorable read. Different text types are used to show how to emphasise different words and phrases on the page with certain words in larger font or in bold. Cory Reid’s illustrations are super; each page is filled with colourful illustrations that bring the story to life and capture Stink’s emotions perfectly.

 

This is a well-thought-out book which is both enjoyable and educational.

Tom Joy

This Is the Ship That Jack Built

Peter Millett, illus. Sam Caldwell, pub. Buster Books

This is a truly delightful version of an old favourite rhyme, ‘The House that Jack built.’  However, in this updated story Jack has built himself a pirate ship and has got a hoard of gold and other treasure, which he is keen to keep hold of. But then the excitement and fun begin, as a range of creatures try and relieve him of his haul. It starts with a rat, closely followed by a cat, squid, whale and various other marine animals. Eventually the bag of swag ends up being deposited on a beach and Jack is finally able to retrieve his belongings.

 

The author and illustrator have both brought a real sense of fun to this story. The text follows the beat of the original rhyme and there is a really strong sense of energy and movement as we have the repetition of the ever-growing list of animals. It is an absolute joy to read out loud and will soon have the audience joining in with the list. The illustrations complement the text with their really bright and exuberant images, which each cover a two-page spread and which lead us on towards the next part of the story. I particularly enjoy the facial expressions, as each animal in turn, is chased by another creature. This is one of those books that will be loved by a range of young children. There are those who love pirates, as well as animal lovers and those who enjoy the rhymes. It should be definitely on the list of all nurseries and reception classes for ‘Talk like a Pirate Day.’

Margaret Pemberton

Thank You

Jarvis, pub. Walker Books

Are you grateful for all that you have? For you have more than you can imagine. This little book for kids will make them grateful for the flora, fauna, family, experiences and themselves. It's a sweet book on the practice of gratitude in our daily lives by Jarvis. The use of collage art on the pages makes it an easy to read and comprehend type of children's books.

 

Here, our little boy character emphasizes the importance and joy of saying ‘Thank You’ in his own way to that, which he is grateful for.

 

He thanks the sun, the moon, his boots, the tree which gives him shade; his boots, and the clouds, and his sister and for many more mundane and whimsical things, such as,

 

“I’ll thank the Tyrannosaurus for being the longest word.”

“I thank my bicycle for being so fast.”

 

It's a cute and short read with the use of easy-to-understand English for kids aged 4-7. Parents and teachers can use it to cultivate a practice of gratitude in the child, which is, as we see nowadays in this fast paced life, an important habit to have. Gratitude is a great practice to elevate the emotional quotient of a person by making them see the brighter side of life and children can be encouraged to keep a gratitude journal along with their little book of gratitude.

Ishika Tiwari

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