Picture Book Reviews
A Shelter for Sadness
Anne Booth, illus. David Litchfield, pub. Templar
A stunningly beautiful book with its wonderful illustrations and gently understanding text that goes to the very heart of what sadness is. Children need time and space to think about their own sadness, to find ways of coping so that it doesn’t overwhelm them. But how do they do that? Where do they start? In a time where nothing is certain and unexpected loss can come without warning, showing sadness as a character that lives alongside the sad child, may help a better understanding of its nature. The cover and inside pages are so quietly lovely with so much detail, colour and things to look at that even a child with other things on their mind would be interested in them.
Sadness is an ephemeral creature who, when it goes to live with the sad child, needs a shelter which the boy builds for it. Sadness can change its shape at will, become large, small, tiny, but it needs help and so when the shelter is built, the child invites it in. The shelter has a window which can be open or closed and Sadness can look out of it or not. It has light. Light from the sun, moon and stars, even from candles but if Sadness doesn’t want light, it can draw the curtain and sit in the dark if that’s what it wants.
There is a wonderful illustration of a house as a shelter against a storm of snow but in the garden, there is also a beautiful shelter the sad boy has built in which Sadness sits safely inside. Spring comes with its flood of golden light, flowers and the rose Sadness holds carefully in its hands. Autumn brings crackling leaves and bonfires and if Sadness wants to walk in the leaves or sit by the bonfire, he can, but not if he doesn’t want to. Sadness lies on the floor of its shelter and curls up but sometimes, it just sits with the sad boy and neither of them speak. The boy visits every day, sometimes every hour if he needs to, sometimes he misses altogether. Then, one day, Sadness comes out of the shelter and holds the sad boy’s hand and together, they see how beautiful the world is.
The illustrations are so evocative, so detailed, colourful and interesting, they need time to look at, to touch, even to draw them yourself and go back to them over and over again. The story is told in short quiet sentences with nothing to alarm or confuse but which take the sad child slowly forward until, as the final illustration shows, he and Sadness are smiling at each other. A Shelter for Sadness is a book to keep.
Barry Falls illus. Barry Falls, pub. Pavilion
Billy McGill lives alone in his house at the top of a hill and he really likes the solitude that he finds. Then one day he hears the squeak of a mouse and things go rapidly downhill from there. First, he buys a cat and then a dog, a bear and even a tiger; as well as lots of other creatures. Eventually the house is so full that Billy takes refuge on a rocky island away from everything, but will this make him happy? You will have to read this story in order to discover what happens.
What a truly lovely story, fully of delightful characters with lessons for us all to learn. The story is beautifully told in rhyme that makes the story flow along with pace and humour. In many ways it is reminiscent of other stories about accumulating characters in a house; think of Julia Donaldson and also the 'Old Woman who swallowed a fly'. However, with this story it is very much about how we interact with others and whether we really want to be totally alone all of the time. The illustrations are delightful and really bring out the character of each of the animals and people. They have lots of depth and movement which adds to the vitality we see in the story. This is a great story for nursery and KS1 children and I think it would make a great starting point for some activities and acting.
The Button Book
Sally Nicholls, illus. Bethan Woollvin, pub. Andersen Press
Do you ever wonder what happens when you press a button? Does that thought run through your head – I wonder …? I know that it does mine and more often than not I am told on no account to just try pressing it, even for fun, and isn’t this what we tell children when they are curious? Don’t touch we often say, do not touch unless we know it is safe? And rightly so. However, buttons are so very tempting aren’t they?
Squirrel finds a red button. What do you think that he does? Of course he presses it. “Beep” is the result. But what happens if you press the orange button, blue button … and on it goes, an exploration of colour, shape sound and silliness on every page! Each and every button is a different colour and a different shape – play games with your little readers, can they guess what will come next or, if it is a second, third, fourth reading, can they remember what comes next?
The noises emitted by these buttons are hilarious and as we turn each page we are greeted with more text, more images to explore and many more reasons to have a giggle. This book is written for and speaks to its young reader. It is pure, hilarious perfection.
This is a book to be shared, a book which, when you are reading it, makes it very difficult to separate the text from the picture, they are seamlessly and intelligently intertwined and believe me, when you have finished reading there will not be a button that you don’t want to press ‘just to see …’
Can Bears Ski?
Raymond Antrobus, illus. Polly Dunbar, pub. Walker Books
Dad bear tries really hard to wake boy bear up in the mornings, but it’s a struggle. Isn’t it always? Dad bear tries to talk to boy bear but it’s a struggle. Again, does this sound familiar to you. Boy bear struggles to understand his teacher and friends. All boy bear can hear them saying is “Can bears ski?” And he is left wondering if he should actually be out somewhere skiing. What is really happening is that the bears around him are asking if he can hear them. When it all becomes too much dad decides to take boy bear for a hearing test.
At the hearing test dad and boy discover that he has hearing problems and so it is that the story then helps us as we follow boy bear having his hearing aids fitted, and learning the challenging task of lip reading. There are days when he doesn't want to wear his hearing aids and hides them!
I really enjoyed this book, I’d never read a book dealing with childhood hearing loss before. This is a unique, important and fun story.
The writer himself is deaf and draws on his own childhood experiences, the illustrator is partially deaf and wears hearing aids so, to them both this book is very special.
The illustrations are beautifully drawn, exuding warmth and care. Through this book children will be able to express their own feelings, and not just around disability though it is important that this is recognised, and it will give them the confidence to find their own place in the world.
Captain Green and the Tree Machine
Evelyn Bookless, illus. Danny Deeptown, pub. Marshall Cavendish Children
What a timely, important and gorgeous book!
Captain Green is a superhero for the planet and here, in his second adventure (written by one of our very own Armadillo reviewers), he answers the alarm calls of forest animals who are losing their homes and food sources.
Each animal’s plight – the hornbill, the pygmy elephant and the orangutan – is different, but they all stem from the same cause: man’s relentless destruction of their homes. Whether for wood products or farmland to graze cattle for meat production, the pictures and text underline the fact that every minute, trees are falling, forests are becoming dustbowls and animals are losing the ecosystems they need to survive.
‘It seems easier to ruin a forest, than to grow one!’ says Captain Green, capturing the stark truth at the heart of this book.
However, Captain Green is brave, big-hearted and utterly determined to help these creatures. Unfortunately, despite his brilliant Tree Machine that fires out new trees to replant the lost ones as fast as he can, he cannot do it alone. Needing others’ help, he shows the children in the book and the children who read it how they can do their bit.
Bookless’ affecting prose is brilliantly complemented by Deeptown’s bright, bold illustrations. I particularly loved the gorgeous orangutan! The pictures are thought provoking and create lots of discussion points for the children and adults who choose to share this book.
From the beautiful end papers, which tell a story themselves, through the clever story and the practical information at the end, this book has the ability to turn children into mini-superheroes for the planet. Endorsed by the Rainforest Trust, WeForest, One Tree Planted and Stand For Trees, this book brims with love, wisdom and humour. It is a book that deserves to be in every classroom, library and home.
The Castle the King Built
Rebecca Colby, illus. Tom Froese, pub. Nosy Crow
The Castle the King Built is a combination of picture and fact book, inspired new take on the traditional story, The House that Jack Built. Each page features integral tradesmen, enticing merchants and singing minstrels who we see collectively work together to build a castle. It is a complete wonder to see just how many people it truly took to build a castle.
Rollicking rhymes accompanied by brilliantly retro-style illustrations both manage to introduce readers to the inner workings of a medieval castle, from the inside out. Castles, we learn, didn’t just build themselves. It took years of hard work, hundreds of carpenters, blacksmiths and stone masons. It took plenty of cooks, bakers and servants to ensure the king and his family were well fed.
This book would perfectly suit a young historian or a class celebrating and learning about castles, kings and queens. The clothing, the backgrounds and the food were well researched, and they all add to the medieval flare of this book. Nosy Crow have published it in association with The National Trust, I can think of no better way to read this book than by adding in a visit to a local National Trust site. They promise to bring history to life through their properties and this book, its story, certainly transported me back in time.
Chicken Come Home!
Polly Faber, illus. Briony May Smith, pub. Pavilion
Dolly is a particularly plucky chicken. She is a chicken who does what all chickens love to do. Dolly lays eggs. Dolly is a very lucky chicken too for she has the opportunity to roam free around her home and garden. The result? Dolly has a choice of where to lay her egg each day and she loves nothing more than choosing different spots. Why? Dolly likes to challenge her owner to see if he can find her eggs. Dolly loves the boy, and the boy loves Dolly.
Dolly’s adventures are about to take a turn for the … well for the more adventurous. Why? Well Dolly has found a wonderfully warm basket to lay her egg in, little knowing that this basket is about to take off up into the skies. For this is no ordinary basket, this is a hot air balloon basket!
Dolly doesn’t want to be in the air, she wasn’t to be home in time for the boy and the daily egg hunt. Will jumping out help or will more adventures unfold for our plucky heroine?
Chicken Come Home! is a lyrical story, a warm story which wraps around you with a loving hug from the moment you open it up. Read aloud or keep to yourself. Whichever way you choose to enjoy it the warmth instantly brims from the page as does the suspense that will have you turning every page with some trepidation, eager to learn what will happen and if all will be well. Reading this one left me with a very big smile and a lovely glowing feeling. This is most certainly a book that is perfect for Spring reading, a reassuring message about kindness and the joy of adventure. With visual delight after delight there is so much to enjoy you will find yourself reading this one more than once.
Courageous Lucy. The Girl Who Liked to Worry
Paul Russell, illus. Cara King, pub. EK Books
Courageous Lucy. The Girl Who Liked to Worry is a tale of a young girl who worries A LOT, often about things that no one else would even dream about - for instance - Lucy does NOT want to meet Big Foot on the day he stubs his toe! It is a story of childhood anxiety written in a lovely, gentle, and melodic way by Paul Russell. When Lucy’s teacher puts up a poster about a school musical Lucy can only worry as the others begin to rehearse and prepare. Will she take part? And if she does, how will she fare?
Cara King’s illustrations work beautifully with Russell’s prose showing Lucy to be a young, wide-eyed girl with a vivid and magical imagination - but she is clearly unsure of what her next steps should be. I won’t tell you how this book ends, but it takes Lucy to a place that is real, not something that is beyond reach. So, whilst there is magic in the story - through Lucy’s imagination - there is a real grounded hope in its outcome and what Lucy learns. No big makeover, just an important and gorgeous first step. It made me smile and brought back many memories of primary school shows.
Ideal for 4-7-year-olds - to be read too by an older child or grown-up, or alone. However, I think any primary age child would benefit and gain understanding in what the power of worry can have over some people - reading this as a class could bring about a useful discussion too.
Paul Russell’s other picture books include My Storee, a book about childhood dyslexia and My Grandma Forgets which is a story about dementia from a grandchild’s point of view. Based on the loveliness and the insightful way he has written Courageous Lucy I suspect these books would also be a great addition for a school library - or on the bookshelf at home.
Courageous Lucy. The Girl Who Liked to Worry is a picture book with an important message, told in a gentle way within an engaging story, that has touches of magic around the edges. A story that could bring hope and strength to a child that worries too much.
The Fidgety Itch
Lucy Davey, illus. Katz Cowley, pub. Scholastic Children’s Books
The Fidgety Itch is a picture book with an appealing cover showing us a very worried looking watercolour hare. The illustration when teamed with the title immediately entices you to open up, read on and find out about the itch!
The story is set in an Australian woodland and it follows the tale of a group of animal friends who live among the ‘Fru Fru trees.’ We follow their story as they help each other as each of them get a mysterious itch. There are charming watercolour illustrations throughout the story. The animals are beautifully painted with great expression, and there is a little creature to spot on each page, which my son enjoyed finding.
The story is written in rhyme, and is great fun to read, as it falls into a lovely rhythm throughout the book. I really enjoyed reading it aloud with my son, who is 7. There are some repetitive lines, where I could pause and my son could fill in the gaps. It is a perfect length story for bedtime and it left us both feeling satisfied that the story came to a good resolution at the end.
I would recommend this book as a great story to read aloud with children from 3-7 years old and upwards (my older children – aged 9 and 11 years enjoyed it too). It would also be an ideal choice for a teacher to read aloud to a class. It is perfect for anyone who likes animals and really is great fun to read aloud.
The Greatest Showpenguin
Lucy Freegard, pub. Pavilion
Who doesn’t love penguins? They make the sweetest characters - but put them in a circus setting, and the cuteness factor flies through the roof! This is a penguin heroine with a difference. We don’t see her waddle or slide, but we do see her juggling, balancing on a penguin pyramid, being sawn in half, and fired out of a canon.
Poppy is a showpenguin and always has been, but that doesn’t mean she wants to perform circus tricks forever. When the story begins, Poppy is a shy young penguin who is nervous about telling her family how she really feels, but with their love and understanding, we see her transformed into a confident and capable penguin doing what she is most passionate about. She steals the show – but not in the way anyone might expect.
This affirmative, heartwarming story gives readers plenty to think and talk about. In the gentlest possible way, it questions what it means to be successful, teaches us to follow our passions, and shows us that we can all find our own unique way to shine. Whilst the messages of this book offer a great deal, it is perhaps the illustrations that are the biggest draw. They are bold, vibrant, funny and well worth lingering over. Turn the pages to see penguins as you’ve never seen them before!
How Do You Make a Rainbow?
Caroline Crowe, illus. Cally Johnson-Isaacs, pub. Macmillan Children’s Books
How Do You Make A Rainbow? written in rhyme by Caroline Crowe and illustrated by Cally Johnson-Isaacs, is a bright and lively celebration of life and living. The book starts by showing us a little girl and her grandad looking through the window as the rain pours down outside. To the little girl, everything looks sad, grey and in need of brightening up. A rainbow would be just the thing... but how are they made? She thinks they might be painted on the sky but knows that she can’t reach, so she asks Grandad for help. With a grin, Grandad tells the little girl that rainbows aren’t painted, they are ‘made from hope and kindness, with some other things thrown in...’
The following double page spreads are each brightly illustrated with colours to reflect the colours of the rainbow – red, orange, yellow etc. On each spread we see Grandad and the little girl having fun together and sharing some of things they enjoy most enjoy in life. We see them in a red tent reading a red book, looking at photographs, giving red tulips to say ‘thank you' and starting the day with strawberry jam on toast. Each spread emphasises love, kindness and the joy of friendship and delightfully concludes by finding the rainbow that’s inside you.
The bright, bold, illustrations combined with the easy flowing rhyming text, make this a great book to read aloud at home or to a class. Additionally, the final two spreads offer a simple activity suggestion in which readers are encouraged to think about the things that make them and that fit with each of the colours of the rainbow.
I’m Thinking of A Pet
Charlotte and Adam Guillian, pub. Nosy Crow
I’m Thinking of a Pet is the perfect board book: simple, stylish, and snappy. Just what every little one needs, a book they can hold on to and enjoy for themselves, fostering an early love of reading. From the moment we read the title, our imaginations are invited to get to work.
A series of fun clues leads the reader to guess which animal is behind each flap. Pulling flaps is always great fun and, in this book, they reveal not just the animal itself, but some very sweet details too. The illustrations are bright, colourful and full of life.
I’m Thinking of a Pet lends itself beautifully to being read aloud. The language is upbeat and straightforward, the rhymes work brilliantly, and there’s a pleasing repetitive element. Children will love joining in, not least with the animal sounds, as each favourite pet is revealed.
This really is a wonderful and beautifully simple addition to the world of board books, which will be read and enjoyed again and again. And the good news is, this is one of a series, so there are plenty more to be enjoyed once you’ve finished.
I Talk Like A River
Jordan Scott, illus. Sydney Smith, pub. Walker Books
I Talk Like A River by Jordan Scott and Sydney Smith is a powerful, heart-felt story about a young boy struggling with his stutter, a speech disorder that makes him feel self-conscious, afraid and alone.
The boy wakes each morning with the sounds of words all around him – his toy dinosaur, the crow in the tree outside his window, the moon fading in the morning sky - but the boy can’t say any of these words. They stick in his mouth. At school the boy hopes he won’t be asked to speak but, when he is, his classmates turn and stare. The boy feels painfully different and alone. After school, Dad takes the boy to walk by the river. As the pair walk, this wise father tells the boy that ‘he talks just like a river’, and these words transform the boy’s thinking. Just like a river bubbles and churns and whirls around, so does the boy’s speech. And just like the river can be calm and smooth, so can the boy’s speech too. This metaphor brings enough comfort for the boy to find the courage to speak in front of his class, with more confidence than before.
The author’s note at the end tells us that this is a personal story. Jordan Scott’s dad taught him to look at speech as flowing like a river. ‘As the river moves, it stutters, and I do too.’ This gave Jordan ‘the image and language to talk about something so private and terrifying.’ By connecting his stuttering to the movements of the river, allowed Jordan to understand his stutter and have more confidence to face the world and feel less alone.
As a part-time special educational needs’ teacher, this story resonated strongly. It will have a wide appeal across the education sectors for empowering children with similar language issues to feel brave and understood and, to help their peers, teachers and families to better appreciate what it is like to live with a stutter. It would equally comfort any child feeling bullied or alone. A recommended read-aloud book for children everywhere.
Patricia Forde, illus. Elina Braslina, pub. Little Island
This is the story of a young girl and her grandma who helps her cope with fears, many of them being the fears that we all have felt at some time in our lives. Whether it is ghosts, pirates, monsters or vampires, grandma has a solution to making them seem non-scary. But when the young girl’s worst fear is revealed - what will she do if anything happens to grandma - then there is the support and love that will help her understand that her memories will help her overcome the sorrow.
The author has given us a wonderful story full of humour and helpful ideas. It actually covers a range of worries and concerns that children have to deal with and is particularly relevant at this time.
It will not only serve as a great and very funny read about pirates playing with dolls and grandma in a yellow polka-dot bikini (you have to be quite old to understand this joke so it is perfect for the adult reader) but it also is a splendid addition to the school collection of books dealing with empathy and well-being.
It is brightly illustrated in a quirky and funny style that makes you want to delve into the pictures. Whilst it is aimed at the KS1 pupils it can also be used further up the school as part of the discussion about how we cope with problems.
Tom Percival, pub. Simon & Schuster Children’s Books
Inspired by his own childhood experiences of poverty, as he explains in his ‘Author’s Note’, Percival has created a very touching and beautifully illustrated picturebook that highlights how poverty especially, but also other societal issues such as homelessness, age, immigration, disability, etc can make people feel invisible. In his ‘Author’s Note’ he provides statistics about the state of childhood poverty and if you consider the devastating impact the last year has had you can only wonder what the most recent and future data will be. Thus, this is a very timely book and a call of action for anybody and everybody to make a difference. I am sure as well, that children reading this book who are personally affected by such issues, living a life similar to Isabel’s, will feel reassured to see their concerns reflected back at them in such a format and that others recognise and want to help.
Isabel has loving and attentive parents and her dog, but they have little money - they cannot afford heating, have bare floorboards and little furniture in their house and toast bread by an open fire surrounded by unopened bills piling up around them. Eventually they move to a tower block on the other side of the city where Isabel struggles to find anything cheerful or beautiful. She feels increasingly sadder and lonelier and as if she is invisible. As these feelings grow the image of Isabel becomes fainter and transparent against the cold, dark, bleak landscapes.
This is such a clever and evocative technique used by Percival in his illustrations, employing colour in such an engaging and impactful manner. Isabel notices that others around her are also invisible and alone but each one of them are engaging with the world in some kind manner for example a homeless man is feeding the birds. Isabel gets involved, painting, planting flowers, looking after animals, tidying up her environment and as others join in a community develops and colour and beauty emerge back into her life until her environment is transformed. Percival’s depiction of flowers alone are exquisite.
The way Percival uses colour reminded me of the Wizard of Oz or Pleasantville films where black and white and sepia tones are replaced by vibrant technicolour images as the world changes, in Isabel’s case, into a caring, socially conscious community where everybody belongs.
This book has a strong message to it but is not twee or didactic. Central to its core are the importance of community, belonging, wealth and poverty (not just financial), and making a difference. This is Percival’s touching and positive attempt at the latter. It is a wonderful starting point in exploring such issues with children, to educate them on how different people live, and to do something that books do so well, develop empathy.
Natalie J. McChrystal Plimmer
Judith Wisdom, pub. Troika Books
It’s refreshing to receive a book that looks so different from most other children’s books. ‘Unique’ is certainly how I would describe this, especially the illustrations. My first impression was that the cover was simple, the title easy to read and the strange illustrations and vague title made me want to find out more.
The illustrations are in a style that certainly isn’t seen very often. It uses a mix of watercolour paints, pencil sketches and photo manipulation with a natural, earthy palette. It gives me a sense of something in tune with nature and quite homely. Rather than relying on bright colours and stand-out dynamics, they lure you in with weird and sometimes ever so slightly un-nerving depictions of big eyes, floral patterns, dis-membered photo heads on drawn patchwork bodies and other strange artefacts. I say ‘strange’ in the best way possible. I love things a bit weird and odd when done correctly and I think these illustrations are done to portray the mood of the book seeming to come from the characters who themselves are described as ‘a little too strange’. I can imagine children being drawn to them and wanting to inspect all the details.
Moving onto the text, the font perfectly matches the story and is easy to read. I loved the names of the characters - Moon Lady and Trunky - and found the personalities of them quite fascinating. There is a certain sadness in the story, we feel for the characters right away, they are hard done by but still optimistic and friendly. The story has a clear moral theme about animals in zoos being bad. The animals in the cages are cramped and sad and want to escape. There is also an underlying sense that the islanders are mean to the characters because they look different, in particular that they are not the right colour. While this may simply be a way of explaining that being mean is bad, I feel it has racial undertones and children may subconsciously think that making fun of or treating the characters differently because of their skin colour is not acceptable.
Whatever the writer’s intention, it is tackling important themes for children whilst still staying in the realm of fantasy so that race or colour is never outwardly mentioned. Keeping in with this theme, we see different races represented in the islanders themselves and a quote by Maya Angelou at the end. The characters remain friendly to the islanders, even going as far as to save them despite the way they have been treated, and the story ends with a good outcome for our characters but also the islanders as they are liberated by the animals they once caged.
The illustrations are certainly a huge part of this book to me, and I think that is what would make someone pick it up and buy it alone, but the story is what would keep it a regular on my shelf. I would worry a little that it’s too scary for younger kids, but I know some children enjoy illustrations that capture their imagination in this way and applaud the creators on introducing something unique to children instead of the stereotypical pictures.
Overall, I’d highly recommend this book to parents or carers looking for something different that has a nice theme of kindness and helping others without being too preachy.
Leo and the Octopus
Isabelle Marinov, illus. Chris Nixon, pub. Templar
Leo sees the world differently to you and me. For him colours are too bright, sounds are too noisy, and there are far too many people around. Leo thought he was an alien because when he explained this people didn't understand him and he definitely didn't understand them. Leo finds the world lonely, stressful and tiring.
One day Leo meets an octopus called Maya who he can identify with. He goes to the library to research octopuses and learns everything there is to know about them. He and Maya become friends and before long he is even allowed to touch her. He visits as often as he can and even make puzzles for her.
This is a beautiful story about Asperger’s Syndrome. Asperger’s, for those who are not familiar with it, is a type of autism. While reading the book you begin to get a feeling of what it is like to live with Asperger’s Syndrome, what it’s like to be the person with it. Both my children have Asperger’s Syndrome and this is the first book I’ve read that helps the reader to truly understand what that person with the syndrome is thinking and feeling. It gives you an opportunity to see the world from their point of view, and see what life is like for them.
I wish this book had been around a few years ago. It is a book that will help a lot of parents understand their children better. The pictures are full of details and these can tell the story by themselves. This is a wonderful book and one I will always keep.
Laura Dockrill, illus. Maria Karipidou, pub. Walker Books
A whimsical, delightful story about a young boy who ‘borrows’ his Mum’s lipstick and takes it on a journey around the house. A large hardback, which I love because it feels high quality and weighty enough to withstand children’s rough hands!
The book’s jacket is a beautiful teal blue-green, accented by the bright pink of the lipstick which pops, making the book stand out. I especially liked how the title appeared to be written in lipstick, the smiley face over the ‘O’ in the author’s name - a good example of the humour to come. A very particular one.
My first impression is that this book wasn’t just written for kids but to be entertaining to the adults reading it too, clever, cheeky and contemporary in the writing and illustration. It felt though sometimes like the child’s language was too adult. The main character crisscrossed between cute, quirky child and adult telling the story of a cute child. I wished it had been one or the other. The boy’s ‘Oooh! Mum’s posh lipstick!’, is childlike but his later ‘I can’t actually spell right now at this point in my life’ has a grown-up tone.
The professional illustrations are fun, but didn’t jump out and hold my attention. Dull colours highlight the bright pink lipstick running through them, but give the overall feel a slightly miserable, washed-out look. However, the content of the illustrations make up for the lack of colour. The realistic, less than perfect details of the house and the contents are refreshing. Mum doesn’t have long blonde hair, sister has a somewhat ‘alternative’ style - the family portrait on the dresser is a safari holiday rather than a typical beach holiday. Even the sister’s name ‘Bug’ is unusual - Dockrill is trying to portray a real, family full of character, lacking predictability.
A highlight for me, was the main character being male despite the story being about lipstick. The young boy wears the lipstick, his mother does not chastise but tells him he looks fabulous, allowing him to keep it on. A heartwarming nod to allowing children to express their identity.
Despite its laugh-out-loud cheeky antics, the story wasn’t exciting enough to hold the attention of younger readers. Not every story needs a moral or big revelation, but the books that children ask for every night and remember are the ones which touch their hearts, make them think.
Overall a professional and modern, accepting and funny book but not one I’d reach for time and time again, it just lacks that little something that makes it perfect.
Milo Imagines the World
Matt De La Pena, illus. Christian Robinson, pub. Two Hoots
Milo is on a long subway journey across New York with his sister, so interested in the things and people around him, he feels like a shook-up soda, fizzing with excitement. Luckily, he has his drawing book and pencil, he draws the people he sees and starts to imagine their lives. It's not long, however, before Milo learns people cannot be judged by appearance.
Milo's journey is so interesting, here is one reader who never wanted to get off the train, I'm certain no child will either. Why would you miss the woman dressed for a wedding with blue hair and a little dog in a handbag? Milo imagines her getting married in a big cathedral then flying in a hot-air balloon, leaving the city far behind. What about the whiskery man next to Milo frowning at a crossword puzzle? Milo imagines him living at the top of a huge block of flats with cats, rats and parakeets wanting to fly free.
There’s a businessman too, with a bleak, lonely face. I kept an eye on that man. He was still there after the first stop but somewhere along the line he slipped off and disappeared. A group of break-dancers get on, dance and everyone watches. People watch them when they go into a shop, as well, but not in a friendly way. Across from Milo is a boy of his own age, wearing a suit and very white trainers. Milo imagines that boy lives in a castle and will be met off the train by a coach and horses.
To Milo’s surprise, the boy and his dad join the same queue as Milo and his sister. The queue to the prison where Milo’s mum is and where the boy’s mum is, too. There’s no tutting and judging here. This whole story is suffused with a sense of love, especially when Milo meets his mum.
The illustrations with their clear strong colours and loving details make every character interesting. There’s so much to look at, when you think you’ve seen it all, more brilliant details draw your attention to them. The characters become the reader’s friends.
Then there are Milo’s drawings so exactly like a child’s drawings it would not surprise me at all if some children didn’t think that actually they had made this wonderful book. The final drawing is one that Milo has done, he, his sister and his Mum on the back steps eating an ice-cream, a tree and a fence and a cat in the window at the side.
A lovely, lovely book and one that any child will cherish.
Sleep, Cat, Sleep
Antje Damm, pub. Prestel
Cat just wants to have a sleep, but he is being disturbed by the person reading the book. They then they persuade the reader to have a snooze. However, Cat is something of a trickster and wakes up the reader, with a large “Boo!” Cat then suggests that having finished the book, the reader close it and go and find another book to read.
This is a delightful and charmingly simple board book for the very youngest of children. The small size of the pages makes it particularly accessible to a very young age group, as they are able to hold it for themselves. There is very little text, but the plot is easy for everyone to follow. The layout is very straightforward, with the images on the left-hand side and the very basic text on the right. The illustrations are bright and clear, although there is one image of the cat (when it says “Boo”) that might prove a bit scary for some children.
Stylistically it is naïve, almost childlike even, yet there is that classic European sense of sophistication that can be difficult to define. This is a lovely addition to the board book collection in any home or nursery and especially to those with a cat of their own.
The Song for Everyone
Lucy Morris, pub. Bloomsbury Children’s Books
An entirely enchanting and beautifully written song in a story.
The Song for Everyone begins one morning in a small, hard to reach window and as the townspeople of the story begin to listen, the action that comes from this window opens their hearts, eyes and minds to those around them. It gives them hope, joy and purpose.
The pages are intricately designed with a song - a stunning, flowing image of flowers, swirls and curls drifting from the window and across each page and touching on each character. This timeless tale celebrates the power of music and melody and its effects on people - how it can lift a spirit, provide hope and energy, and promote kindness on a large scale. The town blooms as the song takes hold but when it ends, the town takes on a depressed quality - lateness, tiredness, grumpiness ... the town knows it must find the source of the music.
This charming story will appeal to children and adults, the illustrations are delicate and wonderful. Music has the power to bring people together as we will see from the reactions of the townspeople when the music stops. Something so special deserves to be shared.
Morag Hood, pub. Two Hoots
Duck is concerned because he can’t find his spaghetti. He does a very thorough job looking for it but to no avail. Luckily, Tiny Horse, who is a great proclaimer in the old-fashioned tradition of hammy Shakespearian actors, is on hand to save the day. Despite spaghetti being the most elusive of all pastas, she plans a detailed mission to hunt it down. ‘The spaghetti will not escape us,’ she declares, bounding off into the distance. Duck follows behind, lugging the kit and doing the donkey work. He’s very long-suffering but even he has his limits, and he stomps off home, where he comes up with his own solution. Tiny Horse is very sceptical ‘You can’t just MAKE spaghetti,’ she says scornfully, before eating her own words! When they decide that spaghetti on its own is a little dry, the irrepressible Tiny Horse dons her hat and gallops off to hunt down ‘that most fearsome of beasts - tomato sauce.’
These two characters make such a great double act. There’s stoic, practical Duck and then there’s indomitable Tiny Horse, for whom life’s one big dizzy adventure, in which she plays the starring role. They are very entertaining.
The bold, colourful illustrations are equally good fun. There’s lots of comical visual humour to chat about. Morag Hood is brilliant at making the characters highly expressive with the lightest of touches!
There’s so much pleasure to be had from sharing this book. A final lockdown-friendly touch is a recipe for making pasta - genius!
The Story Thief
Graham Carter, pub. Andersen Press
‘Books are treasures, and their stories are for EVERYONE to share!’ says Olive to Octopus as she admonishes him for stealing all of the books belonging to the book-loving inhabitants of her island. But bibliophile Octopus has not been able to stop stealing these beautiful but mysterious objects ever since one appeared in his lair when it fell overboard Olive’s boat. He doesn’t know what they do or what they are for but finds them captivating and tries lots of different things like eating them or making a bed out of them.
When Olive discovers Octopus with the books after becoming a pirate-detective-explorer, inspired by her favourite stories, she starts to read to him, and so Octopus becomes not just a bibliophile in terms of adoring the book as an object but also a book-lover keen to share his passion for reading stories.
This bright and colourful picturebook is a true celebration of reading and books not just in regard to the joy of stories, whether shared or the inspiration they stimulate but also unusually in recognising the precious beautiful object a book is. I read this to my five-year-old niece in our weekly bedtime story videocall who loved it and was very interested in the character of Octopus. This is an amusing and cheerful read, perfect to celebrate World Book Day.
Natalie J. McChrystal Plimmer
The Three Little Pigs and the Big Bad Book
Lucy Rowland, illus. Ben Mantle, pub. Macmillan Children’s Books
From the creators of Little Red Reading Hood, this take on the classic fairy raised a smile from the title itself.
We meet Ben at storytime. He is a lover of fairy tales but may not be quite prepared for which of his favourite characters is going to turn up at bedtime! A perfect read for one familiar with the Three Little Pigs and up for a few twists and turns.
Rhyming verse keeps the story moving quickly, and the illustrations bring to life the lives of the determined piggies and then also the wolf who may just be tiring of his stereotypical role and is prepared to make a change. But is he we wonder?
There are plenty of detailed colour illustrations to explore as you read this book independently as an early reader, with particular mention to the opening and closing spreads. Don’t forget it is also ideal for sharing and for investigating the illustrations together.
After reading this book, we came up with several other endings to this story – it felt a little like those ‘choose your adventure’ books of old. An excellent introduction for little ones into the concept of creative storytelling.
Amy Adeney, illus. Amy Calautti, pub. EK Books
Do you ever find that you are trying to fit in, trying to be like the rest of the crowd and yet ending up standing out all the more despite every effort?
Children tend to follow by example, they look to others for suggestions, ideas as to how to behave, how to dress, how to look and why wouldn’t they you ask? We encourage them to behave in certain ways, to look to others for examples. As adults many of us do the very same. Why? We want to be accepted and we have a tendency to think the route to this is to be just like everyone else. Yet it is individuality that really makes us who we are, each and every one of us is an individual, is unique, is special and it takes time for us to recognise this so perhaps we should start helping children to find out that they too can belong, not by being just like everyone else but by being who they want to be.
Emma wants nothing more than to join in with Carly’s Cartwheel Club. Every Monday she lines up, tries out and is told she is not good enough. Emma practices, practices some more and then practices again until she is good enough. But what is this? Cartwheels are only for Mondays. Tuesdays is for twists, Wednesday is one-hander day, Thursday is Triples and Friday is flips. What is Emma going to do, how can she be good at all these skills?
With Emma we discover that being ‘in the club’ may not be as fun as it appears when you are on the outside. We discover that in fact there could be something even better than being in the club, there could be friends, there could be fun and there could be the opportunity to be yourself and let others be themselves too.
A story with a warm heart, with illustrations to make you giggle, with challenge, with friends and with an important message. Be yourself.
What about the Tooth Fairy?
Elys Dolan, pub. Hodder Children’s Books
As an infant school teacher, with a class full of 30 gappy, teeth-wobbling, coin-counting children, this was one tale that had to be shared at story time. After all, their opinions are ultimately what matters!
The latest release in Elys Dolan’s collection, What About the Tooth Fairy? is a witty and captivatingly illustrated story involving all the big shots: Santa, Cupid and the Easter Bunny, aka the ‘Committee’ of the magical world. The tooth fairy, if you haven’t had the opportunity to meet her in person before, is a black, spectacled woman with a Spanish mouse amigo named Pérez. At a time when we are actively looking to embed BAME diversity into our curriculum, Dolan’s characters are a breath of fresh air being both culturally diverse and inclusive.
The illustrations were by far my favourite part of this book! Take time to explore every beautifully drawn detail, read every speech bubble and amusing label or else you will miss the best bits. The sharp puns and hilarious scenes are the perfect addition to the narrative offering something to tickle all readers, young and old.
The message Dolan wants her audience to take away with them is about standing up for what you believe and being true to yourself, in the case of the Tooth Fairy she desperately wants there to be a ‘Tooth Day’ as the only character currently without one! Now this somehow passed my class by and instead sparked an intense debate about why and when we celebrate specific days in our calendar, leading the majority to refuse the Tooth Fairy her request, asserting, “We don’t all lose our teeth on the same day, it makes no sense. It’s not like Christmas when we all celebrate it on the 25th of December.”
However, whether the Tooth Fairy is granted her day is not down to my class but lies in the hands of the ‘Committee’ and you will have to read the story yourself to discover their verdict!
When Jelly Had a Wobble
Michelle Robinson, illus. Tom Knight, pub. Hachette Children’s Books
Jelly has been entered for the Kitchen Hall of Fame Awards for the most loved food. But Jelly is unable to enjoy the awards ceremony. He is overwhelmed by anxiety and self-doubt and compares himself, unfavourably, with all the other contenders for the ‘best in show’ title. The other foods try to encourage him, but all Jelly really wants to do is run and hide.
Tom Knight’s bold, bright illustrations burst with colour and are a great pull-in to the story. They are humorous, quirky and full of action; the foods come to life as the assorted characters jostle together in excited frenzy to hear the announcement of the winner. Michelle Robinson’s idea to use a jelly as the lead character in a story to help young children understand what anxiety feels like is inspired, and the incorporation of the traditional Jelly on the Plate nursery rhyme fits well with rhythm and rhyme of the text.
While it is a little disappointing that the opportunity to make the main characters more diverse, for a multicultural society familiar with foods from across the world, I think it’s fair to say that any child brought up in a fast-food, advertising-obsessed country like ours in the UK will have no difficulty recognising the top favourite children’s party foods. It’s a delightful, fun, picture book with a serious message: everyone has a wobble now and then, and it’s OK not to feel OK.
Jo Loring Fisher, pub. Frances Lincoln Children’s Books
Sophy is shy and she finds it difficult to talk to other children at school. But at home she likes to become a wolf cub, be part of the pack. At home Sophy has even created her very own den.
She has a wolf costume too, it makes her feel brave and full of confidence. So, she decides to wear the costume to school one day thinking it will help her overcome her shyness and help her to make friends. Unfortunately, this idea backfires and the other children make fun of her. As soon as she returns home she goes straight to her den, where she feels safe. In the den Sophy suddenly she feels the cold air against her face, she finds herself with a wolf and her cub.
So begins a wonderful adventure in which Sophy learns how to be a pack member and finds out what it really is like to be a wolf. She also meets a bear and discovers what it’s like to leave someone out. When the adventure is over will Sophy be able to take all she has learned back to school with her?
This is a beautiful book full of courage and hope exploring how to overcome your problems. It is also a book that teaches children they aren't alone, that other children feel lonely to and they need to reach out to one another.
The illustrations are beautifully drawn and full of details. The pictures are warm and could tell a story by themselves.