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Tuesday, 31 January 2017

This is the Bear




Author: Sarah Hayes
Illustrator: Helen Craig
Publisher: Walker Books, First published in 1986, the edition featured 2011

Here's a bizarre little book. The story is a health and safety nightmare: a dog called Fred puts his boy owner's beloved teddy bear in the bin. The bin is collected and driven to the dump by 'a man in an awful grump'. The boy and Fred (the dog) track the grumpy dump attendent down and ask him to search for the bear in the dump. The teddybear is found in the rubbish and returned to the boy; the trio- dog, boy and bear -return home in the dump attendent's van. At home, the bear has a bath, lies to the other toys about his small sojourn (though Fred (the dog) appears to plan his expose), and then the bear asks 'when can we have another day out?' (presumably at the tip). How Walker books ever thought, 'that works as a story for small children' I don't know, but thankfully they did as it strangely raises a dry grin on the faces of my children each time I read this. And I really like books which can do that!

'This is the Bear' is easy to read-aloud, so perfect for National storytelling week this week. It has a steady, even 'one- two' rhythm, very simple two syllable words (mainly) and regular rhyming pattern. The page colour palette is predominantly white, with light pen drawings on two thirds of each page. The book is incredibly simple, modest even, and so feels relaxed when you read. Children don't tend to interject when you read this, unless you forget to read the speech bubbles, as the text and pictures support each other so nicely. 



I think the narrative works on the idea that the dump is, for children, a scary and unknown place, and it's unclear if you can come back or not. But the toy is found, returns to the person who loves him, and all is forgiven and forgotten. It's a simple 'lost and found' with more assurances and unconditionals. 

Monday, 30 January 2017

Peepo!


Author: Alan Ahlberg

Illustrator: Janet Ahlberg
Publisher: First published by Viking 1981, published in Puffin Books 1983, Published in the edition featured 2004

It's National Storytelling Week and I'm all excited as I'm about to go into Edie (3) and George (1)'s nursery to read to the children.  Now I know I only posted a book from The Ahlberg writing duo last week, but as 'Peepo' is one of my favourite books of all time, and will join in on my nursery reading adventure, it felt only just to feature it tonight.
I should make a disclaimer that 'Peepo' entered our house as a gift on the arrival of my second son, so it's tied up in a real personal joy for me, and despite myself I always feel teary when I read this book.
I think that beyond the personal sentiment the book brings a tear to my eye because it captures an era so beautifully, so wisely, that no other film nor book set in this wartime period does so well. This is the life of a baby, seen through the eyes of that baby (emphasised by the cut out 'vision circles' on every other page). This baby perceives itself as surrounded by family, two sisters, mum and dad and gran. This is kitchen-sink life on the homefront during the Second World War, not the more familiar depiction we associate with these times of trench warfare, battle, Blitz aftermath. For the baby it's an unremarkable time, just life, normal, everyday. The baby notices the little, incidental things like 'the hairnet his mother wears in bed', his 'sister squabbling, She wants him on her knee,' the 'tassel's on his grandma's shawl', 'his ball and his teddy'. In every illustration in this book there's a detailed 
plethora, an archive of artefacts from the time. This book is a feast of nostalgia, a catalogue
of urban life in the family during the war, and strangely, as a child on the 1980s I remember 
so much of the furniture, the household products, the items of that time, as my own postwar baby boom parents had inherited 'this stuff', these ways, this look. I remember my own great grandmother, the very image of this shawl clad, hat pin wearing grandma in Peepo. 

Now the problem for my four, all they hear me say when I read this book is, 'look, mummy 

had a bed like that when she was little', 'mummy had a coal shed and outside loo like that in 
her house when she was a girl' (disclaimer: I grew up in a rural cottage so not all 1980s born parents will think like me on this one!) The children used to do well to listen to my ramblings fairly attentively, I think it was white noise to them really, they were too bewildered by the very busy detailed pictures, trying to spy the tiny 'incidental' (in the baby's eyes) image of the war planes on the 'park outing' page, but recently 7 year old Alf has started groaning, 'not this book that's all about you again !'... Fair point! 


So why recommend this as a read and bring this one into a children's nursery?  Because it 
works on so many levels: this book is fun (our 1 year old just hear's the repetition of the word 'Peepo!' , it's moving (OK, more so for adults), it's educational (a history lesson in every sitting*), and the rhythm, cadences and rhyme in this book- sublime. It's lilting, song-like language; I find it so easy to read aloud and share with children. I think I'll always be so grateful that this book entered my life, the least I can do is pass it on. 

*Bert (5) informs me that his class looked at the following page of Peepo this week to look at 'things in a kitchen', I was surprised myself by how much he identified, so how much of our lives are therefore the same and not so distant from this time.  












Sunday, 29 January 2017

Stella Brings the Family



Author: Miriam B Schiffer
Illusrations: Holly Clifton-Brown
Published: 2015

'Stella Brings the Family' is a celebration of diversity in families. It captures the conversation of diversity in modern classrooms, wherein pupil Stella is pondering who she might invite to her class celebration for Mother's Day when she has no mum and two dads. The theme of difference or feeling different is approached so astutely in this book, with no homogeneity in sight; Stella's class is a multicultural milieu inter-spliced with single parents, extended families, same sex parents, and even a reference to working parents ( who can't make the celebration) thrown in there too. 

This book feels very fresh; it's a proud celebration of all families and is mightly inclusive. Sadly, during the litmus test that are my children, my five year old boy informed me that 'the pictures say the book is for girls' (which makes me realise how important it is to read books about diversity!) but I believe he's basing this observation on familiarity with gendered conventions in children's literature, in that 'books for girls' (eek!) tend to illustrate attractive people, and 'boy books' (argh!) generally play more on illustrating boogies, gore and the grotesque. Yes, admittedly, while the families are all diverse in some respects, they're all still beautiful and easy on the eye, smiling away and with great hair and fashion sense. Maybe 'Stella brings the family' is a a tiny bit too sickly sweet in parts then, ironic given that the overall message of the book strives to undercut gender norms, in that, when Stella is questioned by the other children as to who performs the roles 'of a mum' in her family, it's self explanatory for her that those roles are undertaken by a dad. 




The book does make a very important contribution though- it's really warming to see a children's book suitable for the preschool age represent a range of families, both in terms of ethnicity and dynamics. The narrative is very understated; there could have been a lot of unnecessary dialogue about how Stella and her friends came to be in their families but it's all implied and ripe for discussion with parents. It's a useful book for biological, foster, adoptive and blended families in that sense, and I especially like that the book closes on light quip, in that now the child with two mums is having to think who she might take to Father's Day. Stella of course, decided to invite everyone. 

Saturday, 28 January 2017

Hic!



Author: Jaclin Azoulay
Illustrated by The Fenix Factory
Publisher: Top That, 2012

Here's a nice fun little pre-schooler book, a tale about a hiccuping pig. Snuffletrump the pig is feeling all down in the dumps as he's got hiccups and seemingly everyone has forgotten his birthday. Off he trots to speak to various farm yard animals about the cure for hiccups. Unbeknown to Snuffletrump, his parents are organising him a surprise party all the while, and yes of course, the best cure for hiccups -well it happens to be a surprise!

The illustrations in the book are all very generic and nothing to write home about, and the type font is also quite annoying and hard to read. However, the plot line of this hard-done-by pig getting more and more frustrated as he searches for the cure to stop hiccups, getting into a real mess along the way, keeps the attention of little ones well. Bert (5) and Edie (3) both like it when Snuffletrump sounds increasingly more irate, but I like the fact that the little pig still, in spite of his mood, always manages to say thank you to the farm yard animals for their help before he passes on his way. (Though on the other hand he's a bit self deserving and hard done by...choose your interpretation my adult reader). 

My children like spotting the party clues in the picture background on some of the pages, such as a van with a party cake driving up to the barn as Suffletrump talks to the farm yard duck, this positions them as 'being in on the secret' which is gleefully empowering age 3-5 years! 




Readership for this book might also be suitable for 2 year olds, but it's a little wordy for anyone younger.  All in all, a good fun read about an exasperated pig that's a little better than average and worth a read in the library. 


Friday, 27 January 2017

The Demon Headmaster



Author: Gillian Cross
Publisher: Oxford University Press, first published 1982, this edition 2009

So after we finished 'All at Sea' from the The Worst Witch Series last week (The Worst Witch Series Review) I started to think what other CBBC series from my childhood I'd love to see remade and re-run. Now the 1997 version of The Demon Headmaster, that was scary! BBC Demon Headmaster. As a child I was fortunate enough to have read the books before seeing the series, and if there's any literary gift that you can bequeath upon your child, I'm telling you, it's exposing them to this concept of  'The Demon Headmaster' in print form first, only that way do you really feel and build up the full force of the eerie, controlling 
headmaster. 

Alf (7) is usually slow to fully absorb in a new chapter book, and this edition of 'The Demon Headmaster' (a tatty library copy) has no illustrations other than the cover page. We're now six chapters in and he's fully sold, in fact he's coming to some interesting conclusions about teachers at his own school. I've been surprised as to how well he understands and follows this; he guessed that lead character Dinah Glass was being hynoptised by the swirling green eyes of her new headteacher. He was also able to speculate what the pin prick on Dinah's finger at the close of chapter three might be (a blood test to see if she's immune to the Demon Headmaster's control, we thought). I had forgotten the subplot about Dinah being fostered by Mrs Hunter, which when you read as an adult, or older child I imagine, adds a whole new level to this book. In fact it offers a whole new layer of extra relevance and emotional depth as you start to release Dinah's fears, anxieties, behaviours are tied into 
her attachment issues and transition as a foster child, and are somewhat ironically the saviour of her from the clutches of The Demon Headmaster (a parallel to her chaotic birth home perhaps). 

This is a really exciting, challenging book to be sharing with Alf. It's opening up a lot of 
dialogue for us about how he finds school, about conformity, authority, not questioning the 
status quo. (This might be taken further when he's older as a way of introducing ideologies such as individualism and communism). We're also talking a lot about how Dinah feels and why she acts a certain way in this book. Gillian Cross is very deliberate in opening up this invitation to psychology, and I hadn't appreciated until this revisit how useful this book might be, both in the classroom and at home, in terms of opening up this discussion about how people might think and act differently owed to varied reasons and influences. 


This only leaves me to say #BringBackTheDemonHeadmaster! 

Thursday, 26 January 2017

Princess Smartypants



Author and Illustrator: Babette Cole
Publisher: First published by Hamish Hamilton 1986, Published by Puffin Books 1996

I learnt today that one of my favourite children's authors of all time has sadly passed away: Babette Cole - https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/jan/16/babette-cole-obituary.

If I could turn back time I would have not only written this particular post earlier, but I would have written to Babette Cole personally to say how amazingly influential her book, Princess Smartypants, was in my life. Thanks to this heavyweight of a feminist, nay, post-feminist piece of children's literature, I decided that, like Princess Smartpants, I would become a 'Ms' (and so I did, from the grand old age of seven) and so I remain a 'Ms' today. Well actually that's not entirely true as really I'm now titled ' Dr', but nonetheless, the feminism remains. 

This was also the very first book I bought for my daughter. It felt like a rite of passage, passing this little piece of inspiration on. It was a special moment, reading 'Princess Smartypants' to Edie for the first time, with its empowering storyline about a kick-ass princess who remains staunchly unmarried. In fact it was truly refreshing, getting away from the constant rhetoric of 'needy princess' stories that so fill our bookshop shelves and children's libraries. And it was even more refreshing to read this fantastic book to my sons, watching their bemused faces as Princess Smartypants out-smarts all her male suitors and lives happily ever after, raising her cocktail  glass aloft. 

What I especially love about this book are the post feminist references, intentional or otherwise (Babette Cole was truly before her time, this book was first published in 1986, which makes it really bold and brave). Princess SmartyPants is pretty, she lies around in a bikini, and also wears leathers, rides a motorbike and wears dungarees. Bright pink and inflections of yellow throughout this book signpost this as 'girly' but it subverts the expectations of gender brilliantly, deliberately. I love that Princess Smartypants has a stream of really hopeless and pathetic male suitors all named appropriately humourous things such as Prince Vertigo ( who can't climb Princess Smartypants' glass tower in order to rescue her) and Prince Boneshaker ( who looks petrified on the back of Princess Smartypants' motorbike). Here's Prince Pelvis being out danced at the roller disco marathon:




These are of course little adult quips, and went way over the head of my children but as I've learnt over the years, pleasing the parent reader is almost as important as winning over the children when it comes to staking out a realm in British children's literature; and Babette Cole's 'Princess Smartypants' does this so well. Even the threat of being hitched to the slimy Prince Swashbuckle is diverted just in time, when the traditional fairytale is flipped right over and Princess Smartypants turns the gloating Prince Swashbuckle into a 'gigantic warty toad' with one fateful princessy kiss.  If only I, like many children of the 1980s, had returned to Babette Cole's work sooner, and thanked her. RIP Babette Cole.

Wednesday, 25 January 2017

The Tale of the Tooth Fairy



Author: Helen East
Illustrator: Katinka Kew
Publisher: Macdonald Children's Books, 1989

Well it came to pass tonight, finally, that 5 year old Bert lost his front tooth. Off I skedaddled to the bookshelf to find this mainstay of our household tooth loosing experience - a fiction book about the origins of the tooth fairy. 
Yes indeed, the cover illustrations look a bit menacing, and the idea of a 'tooth gang master' called Justice Fang, who recruits trolls and ogres, goblins, witches and hard-up highwaymen to collect teeth in all manner of ways, is a tad on the fearsome side for bedtime, but giving substance to the tooth fairies actions and motivations is so worth it. 






The book tells the story of an average fairy with no remarkable attributes, so her fairy visitors name her 'Nothing'. However, Nothing amounts to so very much as she discovers her first pearly white tooth to take to Justice Fang, and gifts the sleeping child before her, with a bright new shiny coin. Nothing then revisits the child to find a note requesting she returns for the next tooth, and could she please visit and leave coins for the child's gappy-mouthed friends? Meanwhile the story-in-the-story tells of sceptical Jack, a boy who, like my son Bert, awaits the tooth fairy with many questions, such as, 'how can one fairy visit all the children in one night?' 
This is a magical read helping to 'inform' and so fuel the excitement of a tooth-loss evening. It's an old book, and possibly out of issue (I found it in a charity shop a few years ago) so it might be difficult to acquire. I would also suggest it is suitable for the over fives and not preschoolers, as the illustrations are just a bit too creepy to share with children any younger. The head-shot pictures in particular, show shallow, sunken faces, and they're very ghoulish and haunting. The 'baddies' in the book are depicted as plentiful, thriving and sinister. The story captures a sense of foreboding for poor doomed fairy Nothing, but there's an underdog-victor outcome, a message of hope. Children who like books about legends and myths will enjoy this; it's very macabre and in all, one of those books that lodges in the memory well, balancing on that fear/pleasure binary.  

Tuesday, 24 January 2017

The Little Mermaid


                                        

Illustrator: Alan Marks 
Retelling:  Katie Daynes
Publisher: Usborne, 2010


This is most certainly not a great version of the Hans Christian Andersen classic. Insipid watercolour illustrations, particularly the illustration of the witch ( really scary for younger readers), and it definitely doesn't have the Disney ending either. The mermaid in this version never regains her voice and disappears into the murky waves forever. There's much rosier versions of this tale, and although I'm usually up for honest and slightly dark children's literary reworkings, for the under sevens age range, expecting Disney, I don't recommend this version of the retelling. 

Monday, 23 January 2017

The Pied Piper of Hamelin




Adapted by: Unknown
Illustrated by: John Holder
Publisher:  Ladybird Books Ltd, 1998

From Ladybird's famous 'Read it Yourself' series, we enjoy Ladybird Level 4 The Pied Piper of Hamelin, mainly due to John Holder's very eerie, spindly-legged depiction of rats, but also because the ending of this version of the adaptation, it's very creepy ( and memorable).  In the ending of this adaptation the Mayor is continuing to look for the children lost in the mountainside 'for years and years and years. He is still looking for them now.' Lack of text closure isn't so common in modern children's lit in the UK I think, and hence this ending feels quite haunting and memorable. The detailed hatching on the aged and wandering mayor is almost ethereal; Bert (5) always asks many hypotheticals in response to this image: 'will the major find the children one day?', 'what does the major eat now?', 'Is he sad about the rats and not paying the Pied Piper.' This endpage really surmises 'regret' as a theme, such an interesting concept to bring to young children. 




While Ladybird level 4 is designed as 'longer stories for more fluent readers', children's reading schemes today seem to press more on the vocabulary building rather than length of story, so emerging readers today might find this long winded. As a bedtime book, read by an adult, or fluent reader, it's enchanting. The rats are quite frightening, both in size, as the illustrator experiments well with perspective, getting some rat close ups in the foreground. 



The story is very moralistic, the mayor doing wrong by his people by not paying the Pied Piper and keeping to his promise. This mistake brings about sorrow and loss for a whole town, having their children taken from them, lead away as the rats were. In terms of folklore and fairytales, The Pied Piper is perhaps one of the most alarming, as there is no fantastical beast or mythical creature casting the spells or doing the capturing, but instead, something very everyday and immediate, a man. Fear is,  by its nature enthralling, and as such my children are captivated by this book. 


Saturday, 21 January 2017

Tyrannosaurus Drip



Author: Julia Donaldson
Illustrator: David Roberts

Publisher: Macmillan Children's Books, 2007

This is Julia Donaldson at her very best. An exciting 'underdog wins' story wherein a vegetarian duckbill dinosaur egg ends up in a Tyrannoasaurus nest. The hatchling does his best to fit in with the meat eating T Rex family, but instinct takes over and the T Rex family want to hunt while the duckbill runs away. 'Drip' as the duckbill is named, accidentally discovers his heritage and then saves the duckbill herd from being eaten by grisly and grim T Rex's when they strike lucky with a new way to get across the river. 

The illustrations in the book are a little chaotic, and according to my five year old tonight, 'don't look enough like real T Rex to be a T Rex' ( the caricature of small arms, sharp teeth, claws don't really go alongside the pink plump bodies), the rhyming narrative is fantastic though, and just rolls into rote. Children probably get slightly more out of this book if they understand a 'reflection', in that dad T Rex falls into the river after seeing his, but the way this book reads aloud (sumptuously) means it's suitable for a broad age range (as is the case with most Donaldson books, the secret, in part, to her success I think).  

I'm not sure the book promotes any helpful messages, 'nature over nurture' (not sure I agree with this one), 'running away to find oneself' (not a message I'd normally advocate in a children's book), the tearful looking T Rex family on the back sleeve always rouses sympathy and questions from my children too, 'what happens to the T Rex family mummy, do they find food?' So possibly not the most well thought-out children's book, but in terms of oral and aural readability - divine. 

Friday, 20 January 2017

Each Peach Pear Plum



Author:Allan Ahlberg
Illustrator: Janet Alhberg
Publisher: Puffin Books 1978, board book edition 1999

I'm surprised it's taken me until mid January to review an Ahlberg book, as their many books are staples of our book shelves and classics of British children's literature. 

Each Peach Pear Plum is a fantastic rhyming 'I-spy' book, inviting small children to spot well-known nursery rhyme and fairytale characters such as The Three Bears and Bo-Peep. 
The Ahlbergs use intertextuality again in the Postman and other People's Letters books; referencing characters that young children are likely to know, playing in their inherent familiarity and knowledge, helps them feel like empowered readers,  it's a technique I've  noticed used a great deal in British children's early readers fiction. 

Each Peach Pear Plum in board book edition is particularly engaging for the 18month-2 1/2 year old age range, tough and durable for all the poking and pointing of podgy little hands. The story / game itself, to spot the arm or legs or distant figure of the next character, is fun and invites action, and the scanning of the illustrations. The illustrations are very 'busy' and detailed, there's much to see, sometimes a little too much as on first read the clues are very hard to spot, but then the child gets a real sense of satisfaction from remembering the exact spot to point amongst all the busyness



In terms of the nursery rhymes inside the rhyme, again this is clever as it makes associations and so is easier for children to remember and recite. With rhyming couplets and use of alliteration the book is very catchy, 'Wicked Witch over the Wood' 
and I find myself repeating the verse over and over in my sleep. I also like the ending, bringing the rhyme to a happy conclusion, in that 'plum pie in the sun' unites so many disparate story characters together on one picnic blanket, from Tom Thumb to Robin Hood, Baby Bunting to The Wicked Witch. I never tire of reading this beautiful rhyme. It has iconic status in modern British children's literature, and rightfully so. 

Thursday, 19 January 2017

I WANT MY HAT BACK



Author and illustrator: Jon Klassen 
Publisher: Walker Books, 2011

If anything, this book is an education in effective use of capitalisation as a way 'to shout'. Jon Klassen's work is dead pan dry, I always find myself reading this with my eyebrows raised. It's the story of a bear looking for a missing hat, only he's oblivious to the fact he's seen the thief of the hat, wearing the hat and clearly lying. He then lies himself to conceal his own wrongdoing. 
The story and punch line work much better if each character is read with a funny accent, so the snake in our version has a lisp, the bear is bumbling, slow and has a low deep voice. Read the rabbit in a quick high pitched voice, and the story becomes much funnier. 
The book is very repetitive and simple, so seems at first aimed at very young children ( the under 3s). However, the twist in the story ( the rabbit gets eaten!), is black comedy and so is lost of 3.5 year old Eddie. At 5 and 7 however, her brothers find the story side splittiingly funny and request it is read twice in every sitting. Jon Klassen has managed to produce a very different type of children's book here, it's drole and yet simple, economic with words but generous in fun and humour. We really love this one. 

Here's a fantastic reading of this book I've found, read by George Del Barrio:
I Want My Hat Back from The Vanderbilt Republic on Vimeo.

Wednesday, 18 January 2017

Hoot



Author and Illustrator: Jane Hissey
Publisher: Hutchinson's Children's Books 1996, reprinted by Scribblers 2013

My three year old daughter has developed a fear of 'Old Brown' (the owl in Beatrix Potter's Squirrel Nutkin). She was telling me today that she doesn't like owls. We got this book out as some owl therapy. 'Hoot' tells the story of a group of cuddly toys in bed at night, who wake to hear an unexplained noise. As the toys ponder what the noise might be, odd socks appear around the room and a soft toy owl in a blue apron flies down from the top of the cupboard. The innovative owl explains that her nest of socks has fallen from the cupboard, 
so the other toys help her to raise a new bobble hat nest into the air. 

This is a classic Jane Hissey book; soft quiet illustrations with lots of depth and a narrative about kindness and working together. Hissey's work seems if it's time in some respects, sat alongside the more garish, loud children's literature of the 2010s, where subplots  are common ( one to please, entertain the parents, another for the children). Hissey's work is more sincere and gag -free; it speaks to the imagination of children so beautifully. There's no exposition as to why the toys 'come to life' , they are just 'real', and I love that. The toys adventure through their days, using props from daily life in a resourceful way. In the process, the answers to everyday phenomena are realised, 'why do we always have so many odd socks lying around?' for example. 

Hoot is a book that will captivate the 3-5 year old and Jane Hissey's Old Bear stories in general model imaginative play beautifully, highly recommended. 

Tuesday, 17 January 2017

Claude on Holiday


Author and Illustrator: Alex T Smith
Publisher: Hodder Children's Books, 2011

Alex T Smith is really exciting fresh writing talent, though I can't say 'new' as I think he's been writing for a good few years now; we have most of his titles- to me this author is the king of the loveable character. 

The 'Claude' series is perfect for the rising fives and above, as each book is split into two chapters, enough to get a feel for chapter books but not enough to loose pace and interest. There's a real dearth in literature for this particular age group, those books that do exist, tend to be part of reading schemes such as 'Treetops' and 'Racing Ahead' and so have a vocabulary agenda that make them quite dry to read. The 'Claude series' is a real hybrid, just between a picture book and early reader chapter book. 

In 'On holiday' the first half starts with Claude, the beret wearing dog and his best friend, a bobbly sock called Mr Bobblysock, leaving Mr and Mrs Shinyshoes house with a suitcase. Claude uses items from the suitcase to save the day. Amongst all this there's some good old fashioned innuendo for the adult reader, including the lifeguard 'helping a woman with her 
beach balls' . The second chapter is a pirate story, wherein Claude meets a band of ramshackle pirates and helps them find some treasure. Again the story is very farcical and adventure ready, with Claude's misdemeanours always making everything all right at the end. 

The children enjoy these books but probably not more than I do. I chuckle along as I read. 
The Claude series is perfect for the rising fives and those learning to read. 

Monday, 16 January 2017

Hairy Maclary's Bone



Author and Illustrator: Lynley Dodd
publisher: Puffin Books, 1986, This edition 2007

To me Lynley Dodd has to be the queen of the rhyming couplet! Her books are so infectious, so memorable, I find myself thinking about 'Schnitzel von Krumm with a very low tum' whenever I see a sausage dog. Hairy Maclary, the rougish scruffy little dog, is a clever mutt who outwits the dogs following him ( they want his bone). He leads them on a wild goose chase across town, wherein each breeds' characteristic turn out to be their pitfall ( so for example, the long hair of English sheep dog Muffin McLay gets caught in the prickly hedge). Eventually clever Hairy Maclary gets that bone to himself. 

From 18 months- 4 years these books are fun, in-between a quick coffee, reads. Children over 4 tend to enjoy these books still, but always ask for more ( as they're quite short). With lots of page turning and a high picture -to -word ratio this, The Hairy MacClary series, does seem to serve the youngest of children very well. What I really like about Lynley Dodd's work, is her ability to find unusual rhymes and use uncouth words. Not so much in this title, but in Hairy Maclary's Hat Tricks for example, 'The wind was so restless, it's buffets so strong, that it flapped him, and slapped him, and zapped him along.' Talk about helping to expand young children's vocabulary! Her writing is sumptuous, it feels nice on the tongue, enjoyable to read aloud.





Dodd is very observant, acknowledging the little differences in the breeds as each dog, in subsequent books, has its own specific noise, so for example a yelp, a woof, or a yowl. This series is fun and witty, with very catchy verse. She uses a lot of onomatopoeia, which, together with this careful observation, really appeals to and mirrors the young child's mind.

Here's a lovely reading of the book from a group called Buzzing for Books, voiced by 'Mr Haines': Buzzing for Books YouTube Channel

Hairy Maclary's Bone Reading

Sunday, 15 January 2017

One Lonely Fish




Concept and Design: Andy Mansfield
Illustrations: Thomas Flintham
Publisher: Templar Publishing, 2016

The full title of this book is: One Lonely Fish: A counting book with bite. It's one of my current favourite books for toddlers, and works especially well for those approaching or a few months following the age of 1, with a very straightforward concept (count-the-fish) and pages that can be easily turned by small hands.  

Counting gradually up from 1-10, on each page the landscape length on the book gains a new colourful fish, with its jaws wide open, enough to swallow up the fish ahead. This forms a neat queue (or chasing line) of fish until one giant fish eats the lot (broad smile on his face). Snap! The end. 


Following on from reading (though it feels more like playing with this book, rather than reading it), we've used the book to discuss why fish number ten might be lonely, and with older children, you might even get a chat about the food chain out of this this title. 
In terms of age range though, this is an exceptionally toddler-friendly book, as the pages are easy to turn with inverted triangle card cut-aways on each page for added 'turn-ability', and the pages are made of tough thick cardboard. It's a big robust book (a bit too big for standard bookshelves actually, so do think about finding accommodation for it elsewhere in a nursery bedroom). The fish illustrations are bright, predominately in primary colours, and the big jaws perspective on the final fish is playful. My three year old loves 'reading' this to her younger brother, and spotting the red crab on each page too. There's extra fun to be had if children dare put their own hand in the fish's mouth, and it bites shut. Lots of squeals of delight in my house from this book in that biting-hand off respect. 

One Lonely Fish feels a little like a hybrid between to Rob Campbell's 1996 Fishy Things and Rod Campbell's 2005 Touch and Feel I won't Bite. If you like both these titles you'll love One Lonely Fish too. 










And if you enjoy counting books with toddlers I also recommend this video of the band Feist singing 'counting to 4' on Sesame Street, uploaded to YouTube in 2008. My children love this rendition, but be warned, it's very catchy: Feist: Counting to Four video




Saturday, 14 January 2017

The Sly Fox and the Little Red Hen




Retold by Vera Southgate
Illutrations: Robert Lumely
Publisher: Ladybird Books ltd, 1968

I am a huge fan of Ladybird books, as, I imagine, are most children's literature fans of my generation (I had many books from the 1960s, which would have been 'nostalgic' for my own parents). Now here I am trying to share these books with my own children, to mixed effect. Some titles just haven't worked, so for example, my favourite, 'Snow White and Rose Red', the children just won't tolerate, 'it's too long and too weird' seven year old Alf says. (I can't argue with that, I also agree, only I liked that it was long and rather than weird, I found it thrilling because it was darn right scary). I'll try again when they're older.

However, this title, from the Well-loved Tales Ladybird series, 'The Sly Fox and the Little Red Hen', the children do like, in fact they really get on board when this is our chosen book at bedtime. The illustrations are incredibly detailed compared to the illustrations they are used to and familiar with today. The fine lines and detail of the pictures muster a sort of realism, that the children are just not used to. This contrasts with the story itself which turns the fox into a caricature, he is sly, he is cunning and he desperately wants to eat the little red hen. The hen looks silly, flapping around, getting put in a sack, but she's clever, and in a brutal way (putting stones in the sack so when the foxes put the 'hen' in the boiling pot of water, the heavy and big stones cause the boiling water to spill out and scold the foxes to death) she kills the foxes. Understandably this version of the fairytale has more sanitised ending these days, but the shock and victorious ending for the little red hen in this version, with foxes dead not just walking away distantly in the woods, rouses cheers with the children. It's the same fear- filled curiosity feeling I think I had as a child when reading these books, the same fear- enjoyment binary that enabled me to remember 'Snow White and Rose Red' so well.

I also like that my children refer to this book as an 'olden days book' . The yellowy look of the book and feel of the pages interests Bert (5) , but mainly it's because the book is tattered and torn, has a lighter palette of colours than their modern story books. The storytelling itself in The Sly Red Fox', with roughly three lines a page, still works so well. I wonder how far removed the next generation will find these books, or whether in some respects, thanks to their newfound place in marketplaces such as EBay as 'retro, vintage and chic' they will remain timeless. 


Friday, 13 January 2017

Harry and the Snow King





Author: Ian Whybrow

Illustrator: Adrian Reynolds
Publisher: Puffin, 1997

We saw a few Snow Kings dotted around our neighbourhood today; those scruffy mini snowmen children make on walls or benches when there is just about enough snow. So this book 'Harry and The Snow King' resonated nicely. My children were all so desperately hoping to wake up to footfalls of snow, but just like in the story, we only had that typical British, teasing, sprinkling of snow, the type that soon melts. 


'Harry and the Snow King' is a story about Harry of 'Harry and a bucketful of dinosaurs' fame. This is a sweeter version of that original book, with intense Harry sculpting a tiny snowman, leaving him on a wall, and when he returns, the Snow King is missing. Of course the adult audience realise the Snow King has melted but Harry and the child audience want to search for the mini snowman- where could he be? In this story, magic does happen; kind farmer Mr Oakley suggests the Snow King has gone off to order more snow and in the morning, Harry wakes to find a huge snowfall and ten snowmen in his yard. ( I'm not sure they'll be such magic happening in our garden tonight sadly). 

This is a nice book about dreaming and having hope. I quite like the very cantankerous relationship between Harry and his big sister, but have heard other parents / readers say they don't like this about the series in general, as it sets a 'bad example', modelling negative sibling relationships. Personally I think portraying a more hostile sibling relationship is both honest, refreshing and real for young readers. Harry also lives with his single parent mum, and active, feisty Nan, again, another welcomed escape from the otherwise over represented nuclear family in children's literature. 

I particularly like that this book leaves on an air of mystery, as the person who builds the big snow men, in order to delight Harry, is never revealed. I like to think it might be the argumentative older sister, Sam, who says herself that bigger snow men are better, but can't quite bring herself to be outwardly nice to little brother Harry. I also like to think a message in this book is 'it's sad that things don't always last forever, but things change and life moves on all the time'. Once more this is a brave, interesting and honest concept to bring to young children. Author Ian Whybrow doesn't hesitate to touch on these hard hitting messages to children. I hope to come back to review his book 'Harry and the Robots' later this year, but in 
short, it's a book that doesn't shy from addressing the fragility of aging grandparents, fragility  being a theme in this title too.
In terms of Harry and the Snow King, this is a good book for promoting discussion and offering hope. 

Here's some craft activities we enjoyed to support our reading of this title: https://goo.gl/images/V2m37Y

Thursday, 12 January 2017

See Inside Trains: An Usborne Flap Book




Author: Emily Bone
Illustrator: Colin King
Publisher: Usborne Publishing, 2013

Flap books appeal across a wide age range in our house. Our 18 month old gets a thrill from moving the flap, our three year old likes the anticipation of there being a second picture 'inside', and the older boys (5 and 7) like revealing the fact (and trying to remember or recite the fact prior to its reveal). 

We have several in this series of non- fiction flap books from Usborne on our shelves; Castles, Underground and Trains to name a few. They're proving useful books for 'independent reading' both at home and in school, as during such snatched occasions ( those, 'calm down and read' moments) children seem to want something they can dive in and out of quickly, diverting the next distraction. Some of the titles, Castles and Space for example, fit nicely with, and so might be used to supplement, KS1 topic work. 

See Inside Trains is a great 'lift the flap' fact book. The eight thematic chapters are set out chronologically, flaps are a good size and generally easy to open. The steam trains and unusual trains chapters are our favourites ( though the latter is more about unusual railway lines than trains). The children aren't so keen on the numeric facts about speed in this book, but they do like the facts about the components of the trains themselves, such as having 'cow catchers' and private coaches for special guests.




The page orientation of page 6 is a bit annoying, as its in portrait rather than landscape, out of line with the rest of the book, but generally the book has a clear uncluttered layout with short text extracts that might help model explanatory English.The type font used is clear ( not so much the fancy script on the cover though) and double- lined space. The illustrations are very detailed, and there's an appropriate and useful amount of labelling. The contents page is a little squeezed, and there's no index (features of reading non- fiction reading that children in KS1 are encouraged to engage with). 

There's also a hidden curriculum in these books, with short descriptions of how each era of train worked, so for example, steam, diesel, electric. My children tend not to like these facts, but I can see how some very inquisitive young minds might relish this sort of info,ration in this very obtainable format. From 3-5 years my children have enjoyed being read this title, from 5-7 they have been reading these on their own. The vocabulary and very short sentences aren't so well pitched to the demands of 8+ years, but for simplicity and as curriculum companions during KS1, thumbs up! 

Wednesday, 11 January 2017

Goodnight Moon


Author: Margaret Wise Brown
Illustrator: Clement Hurd
Publisher: Originally published in 1947, reprinted in 2012 Macmillian Children's Books

Goodnight Moon is heralded as a classic of North American children's literature. I became familiar with the book from a language blog I read many years ago, in which the poem had 
been translated into Polish. Having not initially read the poem in English, it made so much more 'sense' in the English translation and I grew to love it (and yet this poem makes very little 'sense' at all). Having scribbled the lyrics of Goodnight Moon down from the language blog, I actually read it aloud to Alf and Bert when they were little from a scrap of paper. It became a ritual at bedtime to read this poem, which is of course, what Goodnight Moon is all about (the anthropomorphic bunny's bedtime routine). 


Three years on and having purchased the board book version, this book remains consistently part of the bedtime routine in that one of my children (at least) will always, choose this to read out to their baby brother. The poem is rhythmic and surreal. Illustrator Clement Hurd has used bold psychedelic orange and green alongside black silhouette and shadow, making the illustrations quite haunting, ethereal. 


Goodnight Moon seems to be enjoying a new / renewed fame in the UK at the moment, as I've seen it on sale in art galleries and being pushed in more highend book shops lately. I assume this is because it is deemed a young children's 'classic' and is easily marketable as an American cult classic at that. I would like to see  The Quangle Wangle's Hat be reinvented like this, in the same way, as to me it's tantamount to Goodnight Moon in its ethereal nature and has the same iconic pictorials. 


Loved by my older children as an easy- read to the baby each night, Goodnight Moon is perfectedly pitched at the 1-2 year age range. It holds their attention in a rather hynoptic way, with its 
duo-toned block pictures, such as the lamp, and use of black and white, such as the house. I'm sure I've read before that babies under 4 months only see in this basic colour wheel, so again Goodnight Moon is ideal for the very youngest of bookworms and their parents.

In all, this is a really lovely, dreamy, familiar, ritualistic read, and it always puts a neat full stop on the night. 

Tuesday, 10 January 2017

When I First Met You Blue Kangaroo





Author and Illustrator: Emma Chichester Clark
Publisher: HarperCollins children's, 2015

This is the ideal book for parents wanting to explore with their children, what it might feel like or is like when they gain a new sibling. We bought this book for Edie, at 3 years, when gaining her new baby brother George, and the rhetoric of 'it might feel strange, different at first, and we all make mistakes with new things at first' helped us all feel that better prepared ( especially when it came to those first child -to-baby sibling new misadventures!) I very much like the page where mum admits she makes lots of mistakes too, promoting a fantastic dialogue every time between Edie and I, 'so what mistakes DID you make with me, mummy?' 


I also like that the little girl in the book, Lily, is given a blue kangaroo toy to cherish by her grandma, and she is typically over zealous with her 'love', paralleling her eagerness with her new brother. New sibling stories tend to fix on jealousy as a first reaction to the new sibling ( the equally lovely book Ever So, Ever So by Kes Gray for example), when in my experience, over-eagerness and interest in the new arrival can often preclude feelings of jealousy and being left-out. 
We found this book again very useful tonight in that Bert ( at 5) likes things 'just so' and is worried about doing things 'wrong'. Although essentially this book is about gaining a sibling, the context can easily be broadened to suit a theme of general transition, so 'sometimes things in life change a bit, and as things adjust, we learn.' We even moved the focus tonight on to 'sometimes we try new things ( like washing the blue kangaroo) and we get it wrong ( blue kangaroo covered in talcum powder) but that's okay as parents still love you and problems can always be put right ( blue kangaroo is washable!) This book rates highly then, as a conversation starter, an emotion explorer and promoting a good attitude to transition. It would be a useful book for the collection for anyone wanting to promote discussion with their children about starting school, moving house, or any number of transitional events typical in a preschooler's life. All in all, this is a sweet and cheerful story ( about a little girl and her toy), particularly suitable for the 3-5 year category.
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