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Picturebook Reviews

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A Happy Place

Britta Teckentrup, pub. Little Tiger Press

This picture book has evidently been created with bedtime reading in mind.

 

The little girl’s busy mind won’t let her sleep, but a shining star seen through her window (and there is a cut-out here) invites her to follow it to find a happy place. This may be a dream, but she goes into the dark blue night, past the sparkling river, and into the moonlit woods, with the moon at the top and part of each cut page as they are turned. Eventually we dance and sing in the light of the moon, joined by a tippytoed squirrel, a bushy-tailed fox, and other animals, until they all drift away and it’s just the girl and the star, embracing the world, until it is time to go home. Now the girl can sleep peacefully until morning, when she “will awaken to a beautiful, bright new day.”

 

The night makes all the colours muted, but this remains a beautiful book, and the cut-outs through which we are given glimpses of the next page are fun, though care must be taken to share this book with a child old enough to appreciate it and treat it with respect.

 

Award-winning author, illustrator and fine artist Britta Teckentrup has, since 1993, written and illustrated over 120 picture books, some of which have been translated into over 30 languages. Born in Hamburg, she moved to London to study Fine Art and remained in the UK for 17 years, but now lives and works in Berlin with her Scottish husband and their son.  Her experience shows, and this lovely book may be just what a tired parent needs to calm a child and encourage sleep.

Diana Barnes

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A Way To the Stars

David Almond, illus. Gill Smith, pub. Walker Books

Sometimes we look up to the night-time sky and all we see is an inky blue-black, perhaps it is only just dark, and the stars are not quite shining yet. Other times we look up and the sky is simply filled with a glittering wonder. The stars should be classified as a wonder, they are beautiful, mysterious and form shapes that we may have named but really, we know little about. We do know the night sky has been a source of wonder for thousands of years, history and the evidence of past civilisation show us this. I am sure that many of us have wondered, just like I am sure our predecessors have, how we find a way up to the stars. Yes, there are rockets that send astronauts into space but is that the same as going all the way to the stars?

 

Well, if, like me, you look longing at the stars with a feeling of wonder every time, you will love David Almond’s A Way To the Stars. His touching story will pull at your heartstrings and the rich, layered illustrations created by Gill Smith will fascinate.

 

Joe wants nothing more than to find a way to reach the stars that he sees from his bedroom window. The illustrations show us that he clearly loves outer space, take time to look at the sketchbook open on his bed, the picture hanging on his wall, the mobile… There are clues everywhere in this story, for those who pay close attention. Attention is what Joe discovers he needs to see the stars and all their glory too. His friends think he can only find a way up there in his dreams, but his dad knows better (or he will do after he has finished his cup of tea!) His first idea is to climb a ladder but… Whoops. Maybe a tower of boxes will be more successful? Idea after idea they try to find a way to reach the stars, nothing too outlandish for this pair. When dad asks Joe if he wants to give up? “In your dreams…” is the reply!

Louise Ellis-Barrett

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The Dress In the Window

Robert Tregoning, illus. Pippa Curnick, pub. Oxford Children’s Books

What a wonderful exploration of individuality and the importance of feeling happy in your skin.

 

When a young boy and his mother are walking home from school, they pass a second-hand shop, and he spies the most dazzling red dress in the window. From that moment he is determined to buy the dress and goes about helping his family and neighbours with various chores in order to save enough money. We really feel his hurt and disappointment when he goes to buy his dream dress (on his birthday) only to find that it has been sold. Arriving back at home, he finds a wonderful party with all the people he has helped and lots of presents. However, it is the mysterious and very squidgy present from his mother that really makes the day, for of course it is his much-desired dress, and he has the thrill of wearing and dancing in this gorgeous outfit.

 

There are some books that just lift the spirits, and this is one of them. We are not told the names of any of the characters, but the love and caring are very self-evident in the writing and in the illustrations. Whilst the text is short, it is also written in rhyme and with a lot of humour. The illustrations are delightful, with a huge amount of energy and a format that really leads us all through the book. There are lots of opportunities for children to be involved and to act out the story. Of course, this is also a story with a theme, showing the importance of inclusion, diversity and understanding in a way that children will comprehend, and it is highly recommended.

Margaret Pemberton

The Egg Incident

Ziggy Hanaor, illus. Daisy Wynter, pub. Cicada Books

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall.

Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.

All the king’s horses and all the king’s men

couldn’t put Humpty together again.

But is that the truth?

 

Humphrey is an egg. An egg who has very overprotective parents. "Remember Humphrey; never run, never jump and never ever EVER sit on a wall. You remember what happened to your uncle…" So it is that Humphrey lives a very quiet and cautious life, until the day he bumps into Princess Jean (PJ) in the park. An adventurer through and through, PJ can’t understand why Humphrey doesn’t allow himself to have any fun. She tells him tales of all her antics and mishaps, they talk for so long that they don’t notice the park is closing. Now there is only one way for them to get out… Over the wall…

 

This is a laugh-out-loud book which asks the question, what happened to the Humpty Dumpty and his family after the famous Egg Incident. They became, it appears, overprotective towards little Humphrey, and of course that means no fun. That is until the day he is out, in the park and he meets the fun-loving princess PJ. This is also when he learns an interesting truth about his uncle Humpty, on that will help him change his outlook on life, but will he be able to change his parent’s minds?

The story is relayed using dialogue and illustrations helping us to fully engage in the story, the character expressions and the scenery around them. The aside comments add to the humour. A fun book to encourage discussion about finding the balance between activities that are dangerous and being too safe.

Helen Byles

Get Off Bear!

Tony Neal, pub. Oxford Children’s Books

This story forms part of a cleverly created series about mathematical and physical challenges we face day to day. In this wintery adventure, Bear is keen to go sledging but hasn’t yet worked out how to move his sledge. While he sits in the sledge, his friends rally around and use “push” and “pull” to get him moving. Small mouse zooms past with a helpful piece of advice - “You need to get off, Bear.”

 

Once they figure this out, all the friends have a brilliant race down the hill and we continue to enjoy an engaging, light-hearted, colourful story. It is of course perfect for the winter months, and if we get any snow children will be able to follow the example of Bear and friends, get their own sledge’s out and know exactly how to get them to move. The rest of the year? It is still a brilliant book for sharing when the sun is shining down and the summer is upon us, we can simply apply the principles in a different way and continue to enjoy the story and the learning opportunity.

 

Told in easy sentences and with delightful illustrations helping young readers to envision the challenge of push and pull, this entire series would be a welcome addition to any home or school library. Perfect for early years concepts building. It is clever, funny, engaging, and perfect for young readers who won’t even realise they are learning some complex maths and physics proving you are never too young to learn!

Erin Hamilton

The Last Stardog

E.K Mosley, pub. Flying Eye

The first word that came to mind on receiving this book was ‘stunning.’ It is a truly sumptuous book to just sit and enjoy, especially the remarkable illustrations that infuse every page. The story itself is delightful one of facing challenges and overcoming them, with help from friends along the way.

 

Stardog lives in the heavens and every night dreams that a pack of other star dogs roam the sky and that he is not alone; unfortunately, every morning brings disappointment and the gradual erosion of his magic, until one day he falls to earth from the heavens. What follows is a quest to find other star dogs, who can help him renew his magic and return to the stars. The journey is full of encounters with other creatures, each of whom tells their own story. The question is whether Stardog will be successful in his quest.

 

This beautiful story takes the reader on a journey, which in some way is replicated by the tales told by each of the animals. They have all had dreams and challenges and have found ways to start making changes. Along the way they have all discovered friends and a sense of belonging, even if the community they find is very different from what they had imagined. There is a magical ending as the creatures prove that friendship can really change lives and that belonging can be found in the most unexpected places. This is a truly gorgeous book with a wonderful message, which is perfectly reflected by the illustrations.

Margaret Pemberton

The Panda’s Child

Jackie Morris, illus. Cathy Fisher, pub. Gecko Press

The Panda’s Child is a simple, evocative, beautiful story that will both enthral and excite the reader as they find themselves drawn into its wonder. The story even encouraged me to do my own research because pandas are an endangered animal. Very few people will ever see them in the wild, not many have cubs, and this book celebrates the love between a she-panda and her adopted baby panda, its beautiful simplicity made me want to know more about these gentle giants. The Panda’s Child is a chapter book but one that I feel sits well in the picturebook category and could be shared with younger readers too. It would make a lovely storytime book.

 

Jackie Morris’ text is big, bold, simple, and yet layered with meaning. It allows Cathy Fisher’s delicate illustrations to tell the story yet gives younger readers some words to follow too, an aid to their understanding of the development of the tale which takes us to a faraway forest, a place where a mother is laying in the warm sun with her baby. She drifts to sleep and awakes to find her child gone. The villagers search with her and, just when all seems lost, seven days later they find the baby in a cave, being cared for by a panda. Years later when the boy has grown into a young child strangers come to the village, they have captured exotic animals including a baby panda. The villagers want nothing to do with these men who need someone to look after their captives. The young boy volunteers and the villagers turn their backs on the perceived traitor but is the boy really a traitor or is he going to become a saviour?

 

A human child was once in danger, he was rescued by a mother panda. A baby panda is in danger, can he be rescued by a human? Stunning.

Colin Paterson

The Pandas Who Promised

Rachel Bright, illus. Jim Field, pub. Orchard Books

The red panda is not, as you might first think, a relative of the giant panda. Their name comes from the Nepali word ‘ponya’ which means bamboo eater and they were first discovered in 1825. They share similar habitats and eat similar foods but they are otherwise very distinct creatures. Red pandas love to live in trees and are incredibly acrobatic. The pair we are about to meet in Rachel Bright’s The Panda’s Who Promised are beautiful, and full of mischief.

 

Just look at those eyes that Jim Field has given them, I think I would do anything for this pair, and they would never get into trouble, they just look far too adorable. They are Popo and Ketu, cubs who live on a high misty mountainside with their mother and they promise her that, as they grow, they will always stay close to home. Popo was quite content to do just that for she was happy to think whilst Ketu, well she was happiest when she had something to do. They have lots to do in their treetop home and have promised their mother they will do everything together, not stray and stay out of the daylight. That is until Ketu could no longer quell the feelings tumbling inside her, she needed to visit the mountain and explore which means Popo has a big decision to make – keep her promise to their mother or look after her sister…

 

This is a funny, touching and awe-inspiring story. The funny and touching come very much from the story Rachel Bright tells us, her red panda sisters are irresistibly cute. The awe comes from the stunning illustrations Jim Field treats us to. From the treetop home of the pandas to the wildlife surrounding the mountain and the stunning views. This is an expressive, vibrant and epic story of familial love, and the power of promises. A story not to be missed, a true treasure.

Louise Ellis-Barrett

Red is Home

Emma Bettridge, illus. Josephine Birch, pub. Graffeg

Picturebooks are so much fun, truly they are. There are so many things you can do with them, especially as it is very likely that they are going to be read aloud to an audience who just love to engage with what they are seeing and hearing.

 

The combination of Emma Bettridge and Josephine Birch’s words and illustrations have made sure that their picturebook, Red Is Home, is going to be adored, and read out loud a lot! They bring us the story of a dog, Red, who is going through the ups, downs, and anxieties of moving house. The story will immediately appeal to any young readers who are going through a time of uncertainty or change and by the time they have read all fears will have been left far behind!

 

Red is a very lucky dog for he has two homes. He lives here, with Chino and Maude. He also lives there with Sita and Claude. Here is a house and there, for now, is a boat (my dream!) This of course means that he does different things in each place. At one home he can jump on the sofas, at the other he can splash about and chase birds… When he is with Chino and Maude, he does this and that, sometimes that and this. When he is with Sita and Claude, he jumps here and there, sometimes there and here! But when Monday comes Sita and Claude are moving house. When he thinks about what he might do he finds himself spinning all around but luckily for Red his humans are all there for him, and he is about to find a wonderful treat of a place just for himself.

May Ellis

Salat in Secret

Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow, illus. Hatem Aly, pub. Andersen Press

Muhammad wants to pray. Now that he is seven years old and his dad gave him a prayer mat, or salat rug, for his birthday, Muhammad is old enough to pray five times a day. He will however be at school for the midday prayer of Dhuhr and he is convinced he must find somewhere secret to pray.

 

Muhammad’s anxiety about finding somewhere secret to pray contrasts with his dad’s confidence to pray wherever he is, regardless of what others around him might think or say. He is an ice cream seller and, whenever it is time to pray, he puts his salat rug out and begins. People in the street are not always understanding, however. Nonetheless, Muhammad wishes he could be as brave as his dad.

 

Salat in Secret follows Muhammad at school as he tries to find a place to pray and considers the problems of praying in school before he plucks up the courage to ask. The author, Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow, brilliantly conveys the way that Muhammad’s challenge dominates his thoughts through the whole day and how school bells and timetabling create a sense of urgency. Hatem Aly’s illustrations are particularly expressive as Muhammad worries about where to pray.

 

A story for everyone that encourages an understanding of this important pillar and the obligation, within Islam, to prayer.

Simon Barrett

When the Fog Rolls In

Pam Fong, pub. Greenwillow Books, an imprint of HarperCollins

Ordinarily, I wonder if you and I are the same. Do you expect that, typically, the story you read will fill the pages of the book that contains it, with plenty of words on each page? Do you expect your picturebooks to do the same, only with the addition of illustrations of course! Pam Fong’s When the Fog Rolls In surprised me. Of course, it has a story, there are words on each page and there are evocative illustrations. But the surprise came in the form of the presentation of the story.

 

The text is layered. There are simple lines, statements even, on each page urging you to stop, read, take your time to take the words in. Just as a fog which often hangs about, the words hang in the mind of the reader, thick with meaning, suggestion and so much more. It is intelligent, surprising and beautiful in its simplicity. Add to this the lush atmosphere created by the illustrations, so real that you feel almost as though you are indeed lost in the fog with the little puffin. It all adds up to one of the most evocative, age-defying, beautiful picture books that I have enjoyed this year.

 

The puffin we follow through the story is nameless as are the adult and child we see on the titlepage, but they need no introduction. The puffin and its flock love to fly, to see the world around them but all too quickly the fog can roll in and when it does it is easy to be confused, to lose your way. Staying still may sound like a good idea but it won’t make the fog move and it could be dangerous, so the direct path is always the best and its revelations a joy. The fog can be scary and so can the everyday. With this book parents and children can and should share in its joy and its important messages.

Colin Paterson

The Wild

Yuval Zommer, pub. Oxford Children’s Books

Written in the form of a fairytale, The Wild imagines the earth’s biomes as a striking, dragonesque creature. Accompanying marvellous illustrations, the carefully considered narrative explains that the vast Wild nurtures all the flora, funga and fauna which adorn and roam its body. In perfect symbiosis, it is one with the seasons, weather, cycles of life, and provides for all creatures.

 

As the fable progresses, it portrays the emergence of humankind and civilizations, their shifting priorities and the damage they inflict upon nature. The incredible art depicts the verdant creature succumbing to these changes, until, like in all good fairytales, a hero emerges.

 

Like many environmental stories, the warning and moral lesson of the tale is clear and an incredibly important one for all generations. However, at no point does it engender a sense of shame or preach to the reader. For all those that have the pleasure of picking up this book, it is an empowering story which celebrates the gift of nature and exemplifies how we all have the power to make a positive, impactful changes, for immediate and future gains.

 

Read and enjoyed with a four-year-old, The Wild is a beautifully illustrated picture book which sensitively captures the fragility and majesty of nature, whilst delicately reminding us that we all have a part to play in protecting the wonderous creature that is Planet Earth.

Alexander Wilde

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