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Sunday 15 October 2017

Baby Brains

Author and Illustrator: Simon James
Publisher: Walker Books, 2004 ( featured edition 2007)

Here's a picture book that belongs on all good preschooler bookshelves. Baby Brains is a simple and warming story about 'the smartest baby in the whole world', only despite being super human clever Baby Brains, when the chips are down, is just the same as any other baby, crying out for and wanting,  above everything, his mummy. The book, humorously and  
quintessentially comments on the human condition, what unites us and what sets us apart as human beings. It raises a smirk with me every time I read that author illustrator Simon James took the humourous initiative to take a very deep and dark topic that has puzzled philosophers for millennia,and whittle it down to this one delightful and simplistic story about a clever baby- brilliant! 

Illustrations reminiscent of Quentin Blake, with sketchy ink and watercolour people, see Baby Brains in some familiar and less familiar scenarios given his juvenile status. So for example, starting with activities babies are frequently associated with, such as going to sleep in a cot, Baby Brains is soon embroiled in farcical scenarios, such as Baby Brains fixing cars, teaching medicine at the university and eventually being scouted for a NASA space mission.  
 What I love about this book is the very stark message to parents, warning against pushy parenting and being hung up on fretting about the intelligence of one's child. The moral can also be flipped, an intelligent child [ easily substitute this for any child that defies 'the norm' ] feels and needs love and support like all others. This is a great book then, for opening discussion with children about similarity and difference, useful then for illicting discussion on dis/ability, appearance, culture, creed, family circumstance etc. I've used this book many times to illicit discussion with my children regarding adoption for example, as you can ask how each character feels, and why that is, and what each character needs and why. So Mrs Brains (the mum) for example, imagines her child might be similar to herself, but when Baby Brains surprises her she shows she loves baby Brains for whoever he is, praising him for being brave.  The book can also be used to talk about 'what babies need' such as love, tenderness, comfort, an important narrative to impart on all children, but especially those for have experienced early trauma. 

Most importantly, this book is really funny, throwing 'clever baby' at hyperbole. Clever baby doesn't mean having the ability to recite some numbers, as is the conventional scenario, this baby reads newspapers days after being born. The affinity that young children often have with babies, puts them in on the joke here too: my children find the story hilarious, a baby in space, a baby teaching, a baby dependent from its parents! The book is also very nicely paced, short sentences, a very consistent structure, and easy to read aloud. It's a real gem to share, and highly recommended. 

Tuesday 22 August 2017


Author and Illustrator: Alex T Smith
Publisher: Scholastic Children's Books, 2009

I discovered this book in a weekly library haul; shove as many books in a calico bag in between swimming lessons and getting the kids home for tea, library trip enroute, don't ask questions just try the book stash out, one by one, at home. The best books are read more than once, the very best books go on a re-loan, and exceptional books are returned, and a forever copy bought online within a week. I think I had ordered a forever copy of this book within an hour; as my now eight year old says, 'it's epic.'

Home is a book about friendship, and what it means to feel 'at home'. Four unlikely friends, live contently together, until their aspirations and interests in life lead them to yearn for different things; wanting to be a pirate, wanting to yodel in the mountains, a desire to live in a dark cave and aspirations of life in the big city, going to parties. The cartoon critters, a badger, bear, deer and rabbit, discuss, argue and then fight, eventually deciding to go their separate ways but all taking a physical piece of the share house with them; the floor, door, windows and door. Each animal is seen going off in a huff, determined to take their part of the house with them. Double page split images work to great effect here, with the landscape backdrop differing to exaggerate the different destinations of the characters. Eventually the creatures realise and admit they've made a mistake, find resolution and resolve to return and apologise to each other: fantastic! The perfect model of any friend and / or sibling relationship.  

This is a fast paced and witty book, feeling very original in its togetherness -separation and 
'reunification with adjustments' storyline. The tone of the book is very 'matter of fact' rather than urgent and concerned, which makes the story very funny, presenting the obscure events, such as the pompous and bossy badger wanting to 'boogie woogie' all night long, as everyday. I especially like the jibe, 'it was as if they had never seen a  badger boogie-woogie before!' emphasising how alien a new beginning is for the friends, away from each other, as they conclude that the new starts all have drawbacks, with the badger for example, finding that people in the city 'weren't friendly.'  As with most of his work Alex T Smith makes great use of societal references and stereotypes here; he's a great author-comedian in my mind. 

'Home' is full of the unexpected, and yet the message is one of familiarity and belonging. It's a great book for young children in that it promotes feeling secure and concludes that 'home' doesn't need to be a static 'thing', physically a house can change its shape and form but it's the relationships that drive the home that count. A great book to use for children moving house, and also for talking about attachments and belonging. Aside from all this, just a fantastic book to read aloud. Assign each character an accent and have fun performing this one- it's pure comedy, laugh out loud. 

Saturday 5 August 2017

The Pig's Knickers

Author: Jonathan Emmett
Illustrator: Vanessa Cabban
Publisher: Walker Books Ltd, London, 2010

This is a fantastic, cheeky, witty children's book, written as much for the kids as their reading adult. The protagonist, pig, is possibly my favourite preschool book character of all time; theatrical, flamboyant, camp, outlandish. The book starts with a fairly forlorn pig 'feeling sorry for himself' bored with the way he looks, sat in the troth by his pig style on Hilltop Farm. (Appearance angst in a children's book, how modern!) A pair of knickers then blows from the farm washing line on to the head of pig. After working out how to wear the knickers a delighted pig begins his excited escapade around the farmyard, dancing, cartwheeling, and strutting around in his knickers and new found self confidence. Along the way pig meets several farmyard friends, inviting each to comment on his knickers. Each animal makes a dry comment about what they see, and pig eventually beds down for the night with the knickers airing on the fence. An unexpected twist in the morning sees the knickers gone, and a distraught pig is then comforted and reassured by his friends that with or without knickers it is he who is 'special' not the red polka dot knickers alone. 

This fabulous 'clothes don't maketh the man', 'beauty is not skin deep' moral for young children is superbly placed in this self conscious age, as is having a trans dressing pig lead. The story is fresh and welcome at a time when dialogues on identity, sexuality, gender are thankfully opening up. While the humour in the story is technically about the lead character, outlandish pig, he's a lovable character, emotional, and rallied round by his friends. The book is thus as much about friendship, liking people for who they are not how they look, as my more adult interpretation of identity. Acceptance and friendship are of course very useful not to mention computable messages for children of preschool age. 

The neat, water colour and pen illustrations in the book match the 'beauty is not skin deep' message in the story well, with pig characterised as bulbous. The soft colours and whispy farm yard animals give the book an aesthetic of ordinariness (as a children's book) but the story is anything but. There's a fantastic eyebrow raising final joke in the story, that in my experience of reading this aloud, children rarely get; I like the book all the more for this moment. This is a joy of a book to read aloud, but pig deserves a really theatrical performance, so please do him good justice. 

Thursday 27 July 2017

The Tickle Book

The Tickle Book with pop up surprises

Author: Ian Whybrow 
Illustrator: Axel Scheffler

This book, together with The Bedtime Bear by the same author and illustrating duo, are by far the most loved and well read books in my house. So well loved in fact, I've bought them three times over (each!) and since the summer days have now befallen, the kids being at home ( sheltering from the summer rain) so much more, I find myself putting in my order for a fourth copy of The Tickle Book tonight...and really, they're pretty robust for 'pop up' books! Nonetheless, the absolute excitement and joy a good old fashioned lift-the-flaps, pull -the- tab, pop-up book seems to bring (any age child, in fact the older they get, the more excited by the pop-up aspect they seem to be), dumbfounds me. The pure suspense of the pull, for my seven year old, has him in squeals of delight every time. 

I can't recommend these two books more highly, they're such a pleasure. Bright, loads of fun, very quirky ( why is a lizard in a blizzard? Why is there a rabbit on a motorbike?) , ah the countless questions I have for the author...situational madness ' a mouse motel' and a ' lynx carrying drinks' to a picnic, brings humour with every read. And yet as each book follows a jouney to tickling bedtimes, the menagerie of characters and places all seem to make bizarre sense, fuelling the excitement further. The rhymes are very catchy, with a staccato beat and optimal use of rhetoric. There's also a play on phonics that's a preamble to the now very popular Kes Gray 'Oi' books ( e.g. Oi Frog!) , so an 'owl in a towel' and a 'snake' with a 'cake'. The word choice of the author speaks to toddlers beautifully, plenty of 'hello' and farmyard / animal noises. These are the type of silly rhyme books kids really remember, with invitations and instructions to tickle, close eyes, say goodnight. As such, fantastic books for helping build attachments, for bonding, perfect for adopters. My older children currently love reading these to the younger ones, squeals and giggles of laughter amount, hence the wear and tear on the tabs. I also like that there's lots of different lift flap, pull tabs and card wheel arrangements in the book, it really does make for a 'pop up book  full of surprises.' Big thumbs up from me, but buy three copies at least as you'll get through them, and sadly these books are no longer on constant sale in the big supermarkets, like a few years ago. 

Tuesday 18 July 2017

The Diabolical Mr Tiddles

Author and Illustrator: Tom McLaughlin
Publisher: Simon and Schuster, 2012

This book made my eyebrow ache, as it was arched to one side throughout, trying to guess where the goof-ball story was going next. The Diabolical Mr Tiddles is a delightful story of loyalty, friendship and...the benevolence of Her Royal Majesty the Queen?! Birthday boy Harry gets his dream gift, a cat, whom he comically names Mr Tiddles. Harry lavishes Mr Tiddles with affection, and Mr Tiddles wants to repay the friendship. Initially, as cats do, Mr Tiddles brings Harry and mouse, but after this receives a reaction he wasn't expecting, increasingly exciting and expensive gifts start arriving in Harry's room, but where are they from? 
In a fun twist to the story, it turns out that the rotund, ginger, stripey cat Mr Tiddles, has been on some jaunty night escapades stealing items to fulfil all boyhood dreams; a horse from a cowboy, a pogo stick, rockstar guitars; there's a great picture about half way through the book showing this extensive and growing collection, great fun. 

Tom McLaughin then spins the story upside down again, when Harry follows the perpetrator in this nightly wanderings, ending up face-to-face with the Queen, in her bedroom, of all places! 

When reading this to Bert (5) and Edie (3) in the week, Bert immediately spotted that the queen slept with her crown on her head. Little details in the book, like this, are plentiful- comedy treats abound for eager eyes. I really liked the way the queen was presented, as this austere bossy mother character. The message in the book, you can't by love, nor friendship, and that true friends look out for each other, is sweet, a tiny bit lost on the nearly four year old, but well understood by the five year old I felt. The endnote illustration of the queen is amusing, and the cheekiness and neediness of Tiddles throughout, raises a calamitous beat. A great read for settling trading card fractions in the playground, or more generally to read to preschool and reception children navigating new friendships. 

If you like this, you'll also undoubtedly like 'Love Monster':

Sunday 16 July 2017

The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe

Author: C.S.Lewis
Publisher: First published 1950 by Geoffrey Bles, First published by Lions,  Collins Publishing Group, 1980, edition featured 1988

I read this to my 5 year old and 7 year old boys a couple of months ago, to mixed success. I set The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe up as a nostalgia trip for myself, I thought I 
remembered soldier queens and exhilarating battles, but some of this memory was 
implanted from watching the Children's BBC series adaptation from the 1980s. I wasn't disappointed by re-reading the book, just resolute by how 'of its time' the book was, and how adaptations since had skewed the book's ideological stance so much, I had no recollection of how stiff the writing comes across. Enid Blyton eat your heart out, and I'm really not a fan of Blyton and don't buy in to any of this, new wave Blyton fandom popular with the mums at school. 
As my children proved though, ideology is clearly an aside to adventure when you're young. The boys followed the chase chapters excitedly, particularly when the beavers were helping hide the children, and loved the deception of Edmund, his lust for the Turkish Delight ( though I had to refer to these as 'sweets', as the kids had no idea what Turkish Delight might mean). While as an adult I was aghast at the sexism In the book, particularly the moment Peter saves his sister Susan from baying wolves as she climbs a tree; she does a great job at defending herself and younger sister but when Peter is then preparing for battle, he tells Susan the battle is no place for a girl. ( I edited this slightly as I read aloud, but there was no need as the boys were too busy anticipating some sword fighting and didn't really care who'd be involved!) 

What I also found as an adult, was how obvious the 'Aslan as Jesus' parallel is, while I remember this being pointed out to me as a child, and feeling it was clever and subtle. The whole moment of sacrifice on the stone table, the witch's long laboured torture scene, then the breaking of the table in half like Jesus's tomb, was long winded while the battle scene itself, was anticlimactic, short, lacked description of 'one-one' combat. There were also these strange intervals in the book where CS Lewis indulges in encyclopaedic paragraphs about the flora and fauna of the forest, which made my two quite restless and bored. 

Positives though, finishing reading and watching the 2002 film the following day, what a treat that film is! Well paced, well told and beautiful cinematography, particularly the long shots; vast, eerie, magical. I hate to say it, but in this exceptional circumstance, the film is better than the book ( eek! did I say that?)Maybe I'm feeling brave like Susan! 

On that note, here's a link to the superb 2005 Chronicles of Narnia film:

Tuesday 4 July 2017

Edwina the Emu

Author: Sheena Knowles
Illustrator: Rod Clement
Publisher: Angus Robertson, an imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers, 1996

I was passed this book on a bookstall at a school fayre; 'here'said the bookstall mum, 'you'll like this one, it's about a feminist emu, and it's pretty funny'. And she was right, it's really funny, Australian dry humour funny, and a 'feminist emu', why of course!
With loud, brash and garish illustrations, we meet Edwina and Edward, emus in love and expecting a brood of ten. On realising the news Edward shouts, 'YEEK!' and so starts the catchphrase of the book: 'he seemed to be choking, 'Ten litttle emus? you've got to be joking.' being the more collected of the pair, Edwina offers to leave the nest and go and seek work, in order to afford the brood. Edwina tries several jobs, as a ballerina, a chimney sweep and as a waitress. As each ends in an emu related drama, Edwina realises her calling is to sit on the nest (part time only, in a job share with Edward!)  I love this portrayal of a strong, independent thinking, progressive female, and the turn the story takes without compromising the central protagonist's empowerment. 

The bawdy carictures of other job seekers fit well with the laugh-out-loud storyline, an emu being equal to man in a queue at the bus stop, for example. The text is fun also, with simple rhyming couplets ( Some times the rhyme itself is a little over worked and tenuous, but again, this adds to the amusement!) The book looks and feels very Australian, with this loud swaggering humour and moments of irony, such as Edwina gettting a job as a chimney sweep and using her body to sweep the the whole chimney. 

My daughter dislikes Rod Clements' use of starring, googly and bloodshot eyes, which do, I think, put young people off the book. The faces of shock in the book, just aren't the more refined British interpretation of 'shocked face', they're too confrontational. The messages in the book are, however, hugely welcome, insighting a positive sense of womanhood, and promoting shared roles and duties as parents. I like that when Edwina returns to the nest, partner Edward is exhausted; a commment on the stresses of running a home for either gender. 
All in all, an uplifting read, embracing working women and equality in relationships.

Friday 30 June 2017


Author and Illustrator: David Wiesner
Publisher: Andersen Press, 2012, first published by Clarion Books, 2006

I can't put this book down, and I keep putting off it's inevitable return to the library. It's made it to my 'books to buy' list, and thus to this blog. 
A wordless book that tells a gripping story, this masterpiece of modern children's fiction, nay, art, is captivating. When an inquisitive boy finds a barnacle encrusted and battered old camera washed up on the beach, he runs to a 24 hour reprographics shop to develop the film inside the camera case. To his surprise the photographic film shows a whole underwater world, portrayed by Wiesner in these delightfully surreal watercolours that raised curious eyebrows with my children. The story then takes another inexplicable turn, as the developed photos reveal that the camera has been found many times before, bearing a photo in a photo in a photo. Now determined to add himself for posterity, the boy sets up his old fashioned selfie on the sand, with the waves crashing behind him, ready to reclaim the camera. 

While the story is beautiful, taking many exciting and unexpected twists and turns, the pictures that tell of this enchantment are simply enthralling. Deep, detailed, shadow rich, colour rich, sumptuous. My daughter literally tried to reach into the page to inspect the turtles. 

This is the sort of book that I normally pick up sceptically thinking 'all style and no substance' but with Flotsam, far from it, I was truly taken. The book says a huge amount, wordlessly. Much respect to David Weisner, I'll look out for more books by him. 

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