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Friday, 23 June 2017

Badger's Parting Gifts

Author and Illustrator: Susan Varley
Publisher: Collins Picture Lions, HarperCollins, 1984,edition featured 1992

This children's picturebook is a gentle, honest book about death, and coming to terms with grief. There's a sensible narrative about an old badger, quietly preparing himself for parting by readying a letter to his friends. Badger is presented as happy, ready and willing to pass away, watching his friends Frog and Mole run spiritly down a hill, while he feels old and tired. Full of appropriate simple adjectives about aging, the book steers away from gloominess, though at the same time is open about the grief that those left behind then feel.

The death 'scene' itself describes badger 'falling out his body' and running down a long tunnel, which, while somewhat cliched, is a useful, comprehendable anology for young children. One of Badger's friends, Mole, takes the news of Badger's death, harder than the others. Winter then sets in, passing into spring, which is a nice way of indicating to children that an amount of time suspended in this sadness has passed. The creatures then individually have memories of Badger teaching them to do things, so Mole remembers Badger teaching him how to make a paper chain, Frog remembers Badger teaching him to ice skate for example. These memories and teachings are of course, 'Badger's parting gifts', and the book ends with Mole on a warm spring day, on the hillside, looking up at the sky and thanking Badger for these gifts ( and we're reassured that Badger can hear him).

Sensitive and warm then, the narrative is reassuring rather than worrying and dwelling. Yes, there are slightly sugary moments of cliche, tunnels, clouds, seasonal change and the illustrations are soft and floaty, ink and water colour, not necessarily memorable. But all in all quite a helpful book for illiciting thoughts on death, discussion about death with preschoolers and young children. 

Tuesday, 20 June 2017

Hiro - Thomas and Friends

Based on The Railway Series by the Rev.W.Awdry
Illustrations: Robin Davies
Publisher: Egmont, 2010

I'm afraid I don't have the will power to write much; I've included this title on my 'celebration' of Children's Literature blog under duress! 
I thought my days of having to read titles from this cheap and dull modernisation of The Thomas the Tank Engine series were over, but then tonight, George, my toddler, came bounding in with 'Thomas!' (the generic name for all engine related literature). What I can say in the series' favour though, each book is a guaranteed adult sleep inducer! These are the only books in British Literature that I am physically able to read, while mentally switching off. This state of 'reading auto pilot' has its benefits- its like having a nanny attend the children while you ( Internet ) shop- lovely! 

Another positive, from a scant supply here- this particular title , 'Hiro', is the very best of a very bad bunch. Hiro is a less precocious snotty engine than all the others, and brings a bit of the vulnerable and mystique to Thomasland (oh sorry, that's just the up-selling theme park, I mean The Isle of Sodor.)
Other notable points, for when your toddler inevitably navigates to these depressingly formulaic Egmont books, the written text is big and clear (so hard to conveniently 'loose your place' and skip once the child can read themselves). The illustrations are notable for the ridiculously sinister expressions, the picture of alarm on the faces of Annie and Clarabel get my toddler going every time, other than that, dull - cheapo computer graphics I think. I think the extensive 50 book series could always double up as a 'baby names' book box set if all else fails, as traditional PC mid 1990s names will surely make a come back again soon, surely?! My particular favourite crowd pleasers are Jack, Spencer and Harvey - surprise surprise, I don't recall the stories! 
And as for Thomas himself, I'm so fed up with him gloating, and being all saccharine. I wish he'd gone off on the wrong track, discovered Hiro and then got himself lost for all eternity in a siding. But turning back to Hiro, 'The Master of the Railway' as he's described over and over in this edition, how can such cultural stereotypes not be condoned? I doubt the Rev W Awdry would approve; I had the misfournate of reading the vintage editions of these...not enough stuffy pomp for his eyes I feel! Yawn, yawn. 

Sunday, 11 June 2017

The Queen's Nose

Author: Dick King-Smith
Illustrator: Jill Bennett
Publisher: Puffin Books, 1983

This is the most enjoyable chapter book I've read to my 5 and 7 year olds at bedtime so far. I read this to myself aged about ten, and recall moments of the BBC serialisation, but reading The Queen's Nose back to my children confirmed to me that this book has a real charm. It's well-paced, with chapters roughly ten pages long and some gripping cliff -hangers. Most notable is when protagonist, Harmony Parker, is cycling at speed toward a junction and doesn't see the sign. Gripping! My children kept asking all day, what might happen next. We looked forward to reading every chapter, a great accolade with children so young. 

The story starts by introducing school girl Harmony, whom we quickly learn is creative, thoughtful, and at odds with her family. Harmony imagines all the people around her as having animals personas, so her sister Melody, for example, is a self obsessed showy 
Siamese cat, she sees her mother as a fussy pecking Pouter Pigeon and her father as a busy performing Sea Lion. This proved a great plot device, with the children both trying to fathom which animals their teachers might be. Dick King-Smith packs his work full of rich description, particularly with regard to personalities, so inadvertently much improving my children's' vocabulary and desire to observe the world, and people around them. 

In the story, Harmony feels lonely, and yearns for a pet. She spends a lot of time alone, thinking, talking to her stuffed toys and the chickens in their coop in her garden. One day, bringing great excitement, her Uncle Ginger comes to stay ( she views him as a vivacious Grizzly Bear). Having built a mutual relationship, Ginger then has to return home, and on living Harmony, wraps her up a parting gift, a 50p piece that grants wishes once rubbed. So far, a sort of Alladin story, without the lantern. 

The build up to receiving the magic coin is suspense filled, with Harmony having to complete a treasure hunt, and then work out how to use the coin, followed by more complex  problem solving, that really carries the reader, such as how and when should Harmony spend her wishes. Harmony has seven wishes in total; although her wishes are continuously fulfilled, she learns many important lessons through making her decisions. She learns not to be rash, to prioritise those she loves, to be grateful for what she has, to see the good in people ( rather than all their negative qualities) and most importantly, she learns to keep dreaming, and believe and trust in others; fantastically humanistic messages in this hostile ideological age. 

When reading this book my children were really able to empathethise with how main character, Harmony, felt, as her dreams and wishes were well pitched and resembled  'real' children fairly universally. Harmony requests a pet rabbit, a bike, a watch and time off school. The adage 'be careful what you wish for' hungs in the air each time, as the wishes backfire to different extents due to Harmony's misguided management of the situation.

Harmony tries hard though, and diverts disaster by thinking of others, leading to a happy ending and the interesting question as to whether these events would have transpired anyway. With new confidence now, Harmony decides to give the coin away, tossing up on Wimbledon Common for the next person to find. My sons, Alf and Bert, loved this ending, wanting to immediately go searching for the coin. The only problem I found with the book, related to this, was that the coin described has been out of general circulation for some years, so unless we go hunting around in antique fairs, I don't expect we'll stumble on the 'real' coin any time soon. Though this might be a good thing. 
An inspiring, exciting read, ideal for reading to siblings as there were many talking points about the sibling relationship in the book discussed. I think we'll return to reading this again fondly in a few years, it was a big success. 

As with The Demon Headmaster The Demon Headmaster by Gillian Cross
 and The Worst Witch by Jill Murphy this leaves me to call the BBC to #BringBackTheQueensNose!

Wednesday, 7 June 2017

Whatever Wanda Wanted

Author and Illustrator: Jude Wisdom
Publisher: Gullane Children's Books, 2002

What an exciting library find. Bold, brassy illustrations and a story that defied our expectations, a fantastic picturebook. 

Edie (nearly 4) was drawn to this book on the library shelf based on the bright pink cover (sigh!). Yet another princess book I thought; it looked a bit like The Little Princess: I Want my Potty by Tony Ross, 1986, which is no bad thing, but seen it all before (the bratty princess narrative, doting parents, does something wrong, reforms, but is still a bit bratty at the end, because we wouldn't completely want them to reform...or would we?). Whatever Wanda Wanted looks to fit this model initially, and then a shift in the story happens when spoilt, obnoxious, precocious and rude Wanda demands a kite from an magically appearing shop.
Ignoring the warning of the salesman (who's sporting a 70s style tunic and gottee) Wanda takes the kite and is blown away to a desert island. This was quite an exciting extreme twist from the usual half-mistakes made by other bratty princess types (The Little Princess, Peppa Pig, Little Miss stories etc).

The abstract magical realism style illustrations should have really alerted me to the bizarre turn the book might take from the start, with the mix of crayon, pastel and collage producing this super garish and bold page set.The visuals in this book certainly look and feel very original, again, refreshing. 

And so for the twist: Wanda lands on a desert island wailing and complaining about her lack of possessions, especially the lack of access to television. (we liked the dry humour here). So she has a cry, then stands up declaring 'I WILL SURVIVE.' Wanda's own ingenuity and self-drive mean she finds food, shelter and clothing, and she grows 'to love her new life.' (what a turn around: an anti materialism, pro-feminist message!) After making friends with a convenient- plot- device- whale, she catching a ride on the whale's back to return home. On her arrival home her parents are delighted to see Wanda, but have had to sell all their belongings in order to pay for her search party. Wanda assures her parents that she'll be able to knock them up some new furniture, decreeing 'there's more to life than things!'  And then to raise the strong independent woman rhetoric a little higher still, the closing page of the book sees Wanda giving lectures on survival skills and the 'the Beginning' positively reinforced.

As with Princess Smartypants  and The Worst Princess I personally like this brand of post-feminist children's literature to counterbalance 'The Disney princess' (though having recently seen Moana... 

...I'm pleased that there seems to be a wider shift in the sand toward rolling out this representation of strong, independent women with more consistency, sincerity and scope anyway).  

Whatever Wanda Wanted is a great, empowering pre-schooler read, also enjoyed by my KS1 aged son. Recommended target age then 3-6 years. 

And just as an add on, another library find from last week, The Princess and the Dragon by Audrey Wood is also worth a look, again inverting the conventional gender stereotypes. A disruptive, misbehaving princess swaps place with a passive, effeminate dragon, and with the princess and the dragon maintaining the swap at the end, thumbs up for finding true happiness.    

Saturday, 3 June 2017


Author and Illustrator: Emma Dodd
Publisher: Templar Publishing, 2010 as a free edition Bookstart book

The Templar Publishing books by Emma Dodd (in hardback) are the perfect books to give to new parents (titles include You..., Sometimes... and When..., and as above, Me...), and more importantly I think, as there's a real dearth in books for this market, they're perfect books for 'newly placed' adoptees (and as presents for new adoptive parents). Why? because these books espouse a rhetoric of unconditional love, a wholly important message for all young children, but adoptees especially, as feeling safe, secure and loved is a huge part of attachment building. 
What is particularly interesting about the messages in these books, are that the protagonists (generally a young animal, so for example, in Me..., it's a penguin chick) are not 'straightforward' . In Me... the baby penguin is feels very small and insignificant compared to his colony counterparts and the world around him; he says, 'the world is big, but I am small, and several incantations of this beat out throughout the book. At the end of the story he feels reassured, 'I may be small, but I can see, the biggest thing to you is me':   

In Sometimes...a baby elephant is exploring the world, and occasionally he finds himself  pitching his behaviour incorrectly, so squirting water and scaring flamingos away for example. While his behaviour is 'sometimes' a challenge, the parent elephant is always there, and loves him in the face of everything and for all of his behaviours. There's an acceptance here that the young are learning, and learning means making mistakes, and that consequently, it's okay to make mistakes. These messages of commitment, acceptance, love and security are important offerings to all children, but again, to vulnerable children foremost, no matter what their age. 

Just as the latest Bookstart free book for children is launched (Every Bunny Dance) and entered our house via the library this week, I wanted to thank Bookstart especially for this previous title. Me...came out in 2010 and has been treasured in our house. Me... is a lovely, soothing bedtime read, very calming, quiet and sincere. These Emma Dodd books are prefect of young babies and toddlers, with the latter titles including texture on the pages, such as shiny silvery paper representing 'water' for the elephant to wallow in and spray. The illustrations are simple, with small colour palettes used and various artistry techniques (eg. What looks like sponging, crayon and collage to me (but I might be wrong), and these techniques give the illustrations depth and visual texture (particularly in setting the scene of this vast and frozen Antarctica in Me...). 

To conclude, perfectly themed, attractive looking books to buy for friends and family on the birth or adoption of children. Highly recommended. 

If you like this book, you may also like: No Matter What by Debi Gilori

Monday, 29 May 2017

Puddle Lane: The Magic Box

Written By: Shelia McCullagh
Illustrated by Gavin Rowe
Publisher: Ladybird Books, 1985

Weird books stay in children's imaginations, or so I'm concluding. Associations around feeling slightly afraid seem to impinge harder, more deliberately in the memory. I don't proclaim to know anything about the psychology behind this, 'fight or flight' related I'm tentatively guessing, but from my own experience, when I saw this book in the charity shop last year, I smiled, picked it up, flicked through the pages with trepidation, put it back - should I buy this? It freaked me out as a child...the Griffle, a vanishing green monster, the mice, they come to life, a magic box... 

Puddle Lane was a popular British pre-school reading scheme in second half of the 1980's, that accompanied a part- animated children's television series made by Yorkshire Television in Leeds for ITV. In the television programme the main character, the magician, who lived in the big house at the end of Puddle Lane (see picture above), was played by Monty Python actor and musician, Neil Innes. In the reading scheme, published by Ladybird (but incidentally not adopting the classic 52 page Ladybird standard), the magician comes and goes as a plot device, and is sometimes absent from the stories altogether. 

Now Puddle Lane seemed quite dated, and stiff in style, even back when I was using the scheme to learn to read in the 1980s. The dress sense, toys and townscape were all very Victorian, and certainly the children's expansive right to roam (and walk purposefully into an old man's garden when they know he's away) and talk to strangers and busy-bodies in the street, indeed sat very uneasily with me as a four year old, but I did remember this all, vividly, well. 
Now thirty years later I'm sharing the same small, hardback books with my daughter, and she equally delights in them, holding her breath, worrying where the strange little stories might be going.  

In this particular title, The Magic Box, which was on stage 1 of the scheme (each stage had a different cover colour), the children fend off the unwanted advice of Mrs Pitter-Patter, neighbourhood nosey-parker, and head to the magician's garden to pick up a birthday present left by the magician for Sarah. When Sarah and Davy arrive they find a big box in the hollow of a tree with a message attached saying, 'Don't open the box. Push the red button.' Bizarre indeed!  The children press the button, music plays from the box, and the children uncontrollably dance. The music box is of course magical, and casts a spell on anyone who hears the music to dance along. The children then try out the box on sleepy Mr Gotobed, and then who should return, but interfering Mrs Pitter-Patter. The box plays a further trick on Mrs Pitter Patter, singing a silly rhyme about her, and forcing her to dance despite as she tries to protest. The outcome is as implausible and fantastical as the rest of the story, but funny and unexpected.  

Over the past year I've managed to acquire a good collection of the Puddle Lane series from charity shops, exclusively of the titles I remember, such as The Vanishing Monster, and The Wideawake Mice, and my all time favourite, Puddle Lane at Christmas. My daughter, surprisingly I think, given that this is a generation being taught to read through phonics,loves to try to read (or more appropriately try to remember) the emboldened key words on the right hand page of the double page spread. The reading notes page in each Puddle Lane book seems archaic in some respects, instructing parents to read aloud first following with a finger, but the satisfaction my daughter gets from committing these short sentences to rote, surprises me more. She loves the pictures in the books, especially all the British mammals and birds, such as mice and owls, with their human characteristics. Edie also likes the characters, slightly wayward children, but always doing something kind, helping out animals in crisis, thinking about others. She's captivated by the eeriness, the weirdness of the stories, the fear, just as I was. 
All in all then, Puddle Lane is a nostalgic trip down memory lane, and well worth a revisit. 

And if you like this, you might also like The Tale of the Tooth Fairy, based on a shared eeriness and fear. 

You might also remember the television series (I have only a vague recollection of this myself, though watched a lot of ITV children's programmes as a child!):

Sunday, 28 May 2017

King Jack and the Dragon

Author: Peter Bently
Illustrator: Helen Oxenbury
Publisher: Puffin Books, 2011

Here's a fun, spirit rousing book depicting the power of children's imaginations. My daughter (nearly 4) asked for this book in the week as 'the book about fighting dragons all day long and then thinking you'd like to fight them some more', which I thought was a pretty accurate description of the whole narrative. 
Here we have 'King Jack', his friends, and what seems to be his baby brother, playing out in a makeshift fort in the garden, made from 'a big cardboard box, an old sheet and somesticks, a couple of bin bags, a few broken bricks.' We love this, it's very playful, very everyday, and to a child, very real, tangible. Helen Oxenbury does a lovely job with the illustrations, pen and ink in simple black and white, and then pen and watercolour, roughly one drawing per line. My children have enjoyed this book from about 2 years old onwards, and I think this is because of the high ration of picture to line, it's punchy, easy to read aloud, and leads in to the excitement straight away.  

The little boy in the book, Jack, is leading his troops into battle, defending his castle from 'dragon attack'. The depiction of the dragons and beasts is very fantastical, echoing this theme of the story being a lift from Jack's imagination. The 'creature' pictures certainly have lots of detail ( smoking nostrils, scales, dangly tongues), but might be slightly scary for very young children; they're reminiscent of those in Where The Wild Things are, and of course Oxenbury's own earlier, dream-like creatures in Edward Lear's The Quangle Wangle's Hat

With his wooden sword and fists punching the air, the gung-ho adventure culminates in the beasts being chased away by the band of boys, but then there's a really nice, endearing twist in the story where the adults start intervening in the days activities, bringing the playtime to a close. Jack can't except that his lovely day outside is over, so sees that brave knight 'Sir  Zak' has been taken away by a giant (his friend Zak appears to be collected by his dad), then Baby Caspar (his brother) is taken off to bed. Determined to stick it out, despite his growing fears as the garden gets dark, Jack holds fast in his box-fort, until he gets a fright of his own from a 'thing with four feet.' As the shadow lifts and his parents are revealed, reader and character share the same sense of relief. The story ends beautifully with Jack very much a 'boy' being carried in his dads shoulders, and the finale illustration of Jack happily asleep in bed with knight's sword still in hand. 
The book paints this really comforting story of safe imaginative play, content days, childhood fun, friendship, brotherhood and days out in the garden. The soft greens in the book almost smell like summer, and Oxenbury's characteristic close knit hatching make the pictures feel intimate, deep in  perspective, and warm and rich on the eyes. 
A lovely enchanting story that sums up happy childhood and adventure play, all cleverly recalled by Bentley through a child's perspective. 

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