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Tuesday, 28 February 2017

Little Red Riding Hood

Retold by: Monica Hughes
Illustrator: Adrienne Salgado
Series: First Readers: Read Together Books for Marks & Spencer
Publisher: Exclusive Editions Ltd, 2007

I like many things about this First Readers book series, which has been carried by high-street retailer Marks & Spencer for the past ten or so years. I like the price of books in this series, as at £3 each (they might have gone up a little recently), this is pocket-money price for literature in the UK. The affordability of modern children's literature truly concerns me. We should be encouraging reading, not needing to incur a huge debt to brighten our children's bookshelf. 
Books for this age range should be cheap, and they should (my other concern in the wake of national library closures), be accessible. Marks and Spencer sell this range in even their smallest of high-street outposts, and I've also seen the older editions of the range on offer in the nationwide M&S outlets.  So First Readers are affordable, very accessible, and usually they are stocked on a nice rotating circular unit, which shows off a nice range of books in the selection- there's plenty of choice in the range.

First Readers are all based on traditional fairy-tales (so for example Little Red Riding Hood, as above, The Three Little Pigs, Puss in Boots etc) and they are retold very concisely (this range makes Ladybird seem incredibly wordy!).  On one side of the double page spread there are 5-8 very short sentences for the adult to read aloud, and a reminder sentence (a summary) on the accompanying page for the child to recall. Although the story itself does feel very 'snipped', all the elements of the tale are there, and the story flows appropriately. On this note, some of the tales work better than others; The Three Little Pigs is too condensed (no space for 'and by the hair on my chinny chin chin you can't come in!' catchphrase, but repetitive victor stories such as The Giant Turnip and The GingerBread Man, work well in this format.) The illustrations are okay: they're quite nonchalant but bright enough. 
The series 'follows the National Literacy Strategy'; the featured Little Red Riding Hood for example, credits reading consultants Betty Root and Monica Hughes. Thumbs up again for educational value, and certainly my three year old is managing to memorise and recall the story beautifully and engage in the two reading exercise pages at the back of each book. Edie loves the 'can you read the words?' game, as she has memorised the answers and uses the picture clues, likewise the 'answer questions' reading comprehension exercise, including very simple questions such as 'Where did Granny live?' These books support really good reading practice skills, which could be used, as I do, to help prepare the preschooler for reception year learning to read. 

My usual bugbear with fairy-tale retellings for this age range, is that they are so overly sanitised, but this First Readers Series, manoeuvres well endings that are not graphic but follow the original enough. In this version of Little Red Riding Hood for example, the wolf does swallow granny and red riding hood whole, but they jump out whole once the woodcutter arrives.

In all, a good, educational, affordable, accessible early years reading scheme; adequate choice in the range, authentic to the stories, 'no frills' narratives.     

Monday, 27 February 2017

The Very Hungry Caterpillar

Author and Illustrator: Eric Carle
Publisher: The World Publishing Company , USA, 1969, published by Puffin Books in this edition, 2002

I didn't like this book as a child; I have a memory of telling my playground leader this. She said she couldn't understand why I wouldn't like the book, I remember thinking 'because it goes on and on and I know what happens' but I couldn't articulate 'repetitive, very very repetitive' at the time. Do I like this book as an adult? Only if it's read in a certain way (which includes adding hyperbolic caterpillar gobbling noises on every page, to make it somewhat funnier). 

This book was being very heavily merchandised seven years ago when my first son was born. The characteristic primary colour dots used by Eric Carle on both outro and intro pages of The Very Hungry Caterpillar  where on curtains, bedding, clocks, money boxes, pyjamas. The dots were everywhere! I can see the appeal to babies, bright block colours, simple shapes, and I can see the appeal to parents, iconic gauche paper collage illustrations. The story itself is also very simplistic and teaches the egg-caterpillar- butterfly cycle, a mainstay of the early years curriculum ( what came first, Eric Carle's iconic preschooler book or catterpillars on the curriculum?!). Days of the week and counting are also part of this books 'teaching' , so in terms of educational value to toddlers this books must be very high. 

I prefer this book in the thick robust cardboard board book edition, as all that invitation to poke little fingers through the circular cut- outs of the fruit pictorials can get quite frantic, especially when a competing sibling is nearby / involved. The cocoon page is a bit ambiguous and has been likened by many 'helpful' older siblings to the mainstay of toilet humour. The double page spread of the butterfly to end the book is however, a really magical ending, and we like to flutter the book away ( opening and closing it rapidly) which toddlers seem to love. 

In all, it has its flaws, but The very hungry caterpillar enjoys too much popularity in contemporary culture to ever escape the colour, appeal, and enjoyment it brings. 

If you like this, you may also like this counting book: One Lonely Fish

Sunday, 26 February 2017

Tales of Robin Hood: Robin and the Silver Arrow

Author: Damian Harvey
Illustrator: Martin Remphry
Publisher: Franklin Watts, Hachette Children's Books, 2006, The Hopscotch Series

I've recently put a polite request in with our local library to please consider buying more of these Hopscotch Series of books as my boys (5  and 7, and increasingly so my 3 year old girl) absolutely love this collection. Over the past couple of years, we've borrowed and read the Tales of Robin Hood, the Stories of Sinbad the Sailor through this range, and some about legends or historical figures such as BloodAxe Eric, Blackbeard the Pirate, Sir Gwain and the Green Knight (Tales of King Arthur), Mary Seacole, Guy Fawkes to name a few. I imagine the true series range is huge, sadly our library and all the local libraries from which I also requested, have incomplete books in the series ( and we live in a big city for the UK). What a shame for all that the number of books obtainable from the Hopscotch series free in our libraries is sadly limited. Moreover, they don't seem to carry this series at my children's school either, which again, is a real travesty. Seems such a pity as this series makes reading rock! 

From an educational point of view, Hopscotch states it is 'specially designed to fit the requirements of the National Literacy Strategy, aiming to develop children's reading skills' and carries the 'series advisor Dr Barrie Wade, Professor of English in Education, University of Birmingham' . As I've stated before on my blog, I can't officially comment on the educational value of children's books I review, as I have no training at this age range, but whenever I finish reading a Hopscotch book, I always personally feel I've learnt something (mainly about a historical figure). 

In this title, Tales of Robin Hood: Robin and the Silver Arrow, there's a good mix of dialogue and narrative, enabling early readers to try out expression. The illustrations are a little fussy perhaps, but they are laid out pragmatically, allowing roughly three or four sentences  maximum per picture. The use of thought bubbles helps emerging readers follower the storyline, and place themselves in a authorative and knowledgeable position as storyteller. All the books I've read in this series follow the same very useful and purposeful logic. Themes and vocabulary coming out of this title, as an example, are: disguise, competition ( in relation to a tournament), the den and merry men (working together as a team and having friends). This pitch is again typical across the series. 

Using a very familiar folk legend, Robin Hood, children come to the text with some existing expectations. As an adventure story, they seek action-filled, but in way of critiquing this particular title, I would suggest that there are maybe too many characters introduced all at once: Robin, Will Scarlet, little John, Much the Miller's Son, and the Sherriff all in just 31 very short pages. Saying this, as the story is already familiar, this isn't too much of a problem; my two sons, early independent readers, get a real sense of statisfaction from being 'in the know' and feel confident and interested in reading this series themeselves as a consequence. Thumbs up to Hopscotch for #gettingboysreading! 

Saturday, 25 February 2017

Rosie's Hat

Author: Julia Donaldson
Illustrator: Anna Currey
Publisher: Macmillian's Children's Books, 2005

Here's a book with a great longevity; enjoyed from the age of 2 years to 7 years in our house. At 2 years, children enjoy the onomatopoeia in this book, with capitalised noisy words used to express the story; 'PATTER, PATTER! SQUEAK, SQUEAK!' At 3-5 year children start to understand that the hat in the story, is instrumental to all the characters, somewhere to hide for a mouse, used to build sandcastles for some boys, becoming a nest for some birds. From 5-7 years children enjoy the cyclical journey the hat makes, eventually being returned to its rightful owner, Rosie. From about four years children come to understand that Rosie ages and becomes the firefighter, and it's a lovely moment to talk about,  this understanding of generation, moving on, growing up, but loved items from childhood, and memories, still being there. Julia Donaldson revisits this theme latterly with her beautifully sensitive book, Paper Dolls

Anna Currey's watercolour and pen illustrations in Rosie's Hat are very soft and flowing; they capture the ebb of the wind and waves nicely, supporting the theme of 'coming and going'.  I also like that Currey plays with the 'in/consequential', so for example, the seagulls eating the fisherman's lunch, Rosie and her parents in the background of the beach scenes searching for her hat and leaving the beach. The illustrations also use character consistency, the fisherman, for examaple, later returning to the beach with his grandchildren, taking the photo of Rosie and her hat, and her loaning her firefighter hat to a child, to again stimulate this pattern of coming and going. 

This book reads aloud well, and its quiet in nature, soft and lilting, so very calming and gentle at bedtime. The story is also soothing; Rosie looses her hat accidentally, on a sudden fateful breeze, but is reunited fortuitously with her hat, though by this point she has grown and found her path in life, having her own firefighters hat. This, like in Paper Dolls, is a nice metaphor for many possible themes and opening for discussion with children, about bereavement, memories, loss, and simply moving forward after painful moments. 

Friday, 24 February 2017

Frankie's Magic Football Series

Author: Frank Lampard / Lamps On Productions
Illustrations: Lamps On Productions
Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 2014-

Whether these books are all completely penned by British footballer Frank Lampard himself, or underwritten by the copyrighted 'Lamps on Production' team is absolutely of no interest on concern to me. Whether Frank Lampard has one of the highest ever IQ scores recorded by Mensa (see his wiki- it's also somewhat of an urban legend when these books are mentioned in the playground), no concern to me. Whether we, as parents, have read the tabloid tattle on Frank Lampard or not, take all this out the equation; this series of books brought reading alive to my boys, and I'll be forever grateful.

At around 5 years old, both Alf ( now 7) and Bert (currently 5) hit a plateau with their interest in reading. The books coming home from school tried their best to engage ( and follow a reading scheme) but they were all so generic and about baking muffins or finding a grasshopper in the garden. Frankie's Magic Football series fills the void perfectly. They're fantasy / adventure stories about friendship, teamwork and football. Frankie, is a school boy who accidentally comes to own a magic ball in the first book of the series, a ball that transports him and his friends back in time or to a different country or place in each book. Consequently my boys would be asking me about Romans one day, space exploration another, and Australia another according to which of the now 18 books in the two series they would be reading. While the context of the action changes, the main four characters in the series are a constant feature of all the books ( Frankie, Charlie, Max the dog, and notably, a key female character, Louise (who is skilled at football, brave and clever- thumbs up on the positive female representation)). 

Physically the books have some, but not many, cartoon black and white images; big, clear 
font and double-line spaced pages; collectable game cards ( perforated) at the back of each book; short chapters and roughly 100-150 pages- all attractive prospects for early readers. In terms of the vocabulary, again this is very well pitched, short descriptions, occasional metaphors, nothing too academic but at the same time there's a good range of words, plenty of adjectives. 

My boys have both found these books are very addictive, and have really risen to the idea of reading through a series. When they started reading these books ( roughly aged 5 and a half) they haven't been able to read these word for word, but the books are composed well enough that if a child can follow the gist of the story, that's enough: the narrative is cleverly summarised every so often and characters remember things and have flashbacks, so children can regain the gist quite easily. Alf and Bert got a real sense of satisfaction from the intertextuality in the series, and delighted in also cross referencing moments in the books with each other.  

To five year olds, the fact a footballer is a writer, talking to them, writing for them, is something very special. It gives these books credence; they are cool and credible even before they've started reading. Getting children to feel positive about reading, and that reading is not just something they have to do at school, but something they can do for pleasure, is hard if the 'appeal' is not there. Frankie's Magic Football series 1 and 2 appeals hugely, so thank you so much Frank Lampard, you helped us overcome the reading glitch and taught my children how to love literature. 

Thursday, 23 February 2017

This is the Way

Author and Illustrator: Charles Fuge
Publisher: Gullane Children's Books, 2008. Featured board book edition, 2009.

Here's a fun board book that has really encouraged early language development in my children. This is the Way is simple action-noise book, very repetitive and very catchy. It's about a little boy (or girl, I can't quite's the 70s bowl cut hairstyle that's confusing) who follows behind various animals, copying the way they move with an action and sound. 
Some of the creatures the boy follows are slightly a-typical (for this sort of animal rhyme book), so a dinosaur and anteater for example, and the onomatopoeic noises they make are also a little uncouth (the dinosaur doesn't roar as one might expect, but he stalks and says 'snarl, hiss, gnash!')
I've found in the past that the flow of the rhyme works so much better in this book if you repeat the action-noise twice:
'This is the way the orangutan swings, Ooh,Ooh,Ooh! / adding - Ooh, Ooh, Ooh!' / And this is the way the tawny owl sings, T'wit, T'wit, T'woo!,/ adding -T'wit, T'wit, T'woo!'
: as my children tend to join in with the noise on the second repetition each time. 

At first the illustrations in the book put me off, particularly the boy/girl in corduroy trousers with big blue eyes as he looks very dated, but actually now I really like this about the book; the illustrations feel retro and quirky. 

Both the children and I like that this very short board book has a real ending, a 'reveal' nonetheless, as on the last page the boy is fast asleep in his bedroom surrounded by inspiration for his imaginative creature reenactments; his cuddly toy is the tree-frog he meets, he has a bumble bee poster by his bed, his book is open on the anteater page. Most of my children have come to this realisation at about 2 years of age, and it brings them a real sense of satisfaction, making this connection.  

The book is perfectly pitched at the 1-18 month audience, but equally suitable (and more engaging maybe) with the 18 month-2.5 year age range. I distinctly remember Bert reciting the whole book at about 2 years old, making all the lovely animal noises, but we're a long way off that recall with George currently (20 months). 

The book really invites joining in, making noise, imitation, and performance. It uses a 'follow the leader' scenario that even young children will be familiar with,  and promotes a sense of parallel play, with the boy moving alongside the creatures; this again is very age appropriate for the toddler audience. In all, an excellent and highly recommended toddler board book. 

If you like this you might also like: Hug by Jez Alborough

Wednesday, 22 February 2017

The Worst Princess

Author: Anna Kemp
Illustrator: Sara Ogilvie
Publisher: Simon and Schuster, 2012

The Worst Princess is a fun, empowering story and recommended reading for any 3-6 year old girl (and boy for that matter), to help balance out (stamp out!) some of that societal saturation of Disney Princess Syndrome.  
In terms of themes and plot, this book sits like a hybrid between Princess Smartypants  (Babette Cole, 1996) and Zog (Donaldson & Scheffler, 2010). Princess Sue has read all the books on princessly behaviour and attitudes, and she is sat in her tower dutifully (but grumpily) awaiting her prince saviour. When the prince finally arrives (and note, he is so inconsequential, he doesn't even get a name) princess Sue is alarmed to find he expects a conventional princess and takes her to his tower. Enjoying her new-found freedom Sue is angry and searches the skies for an escape plan. She is clever and fearless and on seeing a dragon, she beckons him over. they share a cup of tea and agree to pair up to rid themselves of 'the pesky prince.' The story doesn't end with a disappointing patriarchal nosedive, having an equally kick-ass ending with the princess and dragon causing mischief for 'royal twits and naughty knights'  for ever more, and living happily ever after

What I really like about this book is that the post-feminist princess rhetoric is consistent throughout. Unlike Princess Smartypants, which subverts the princess fairy-tale genre alongside plenty of pastel and pink shades, The Worst Princess is loud, proud and indignant with lots of bright purple and orange, pointy, rough-edged illustrations. At times the prose is bawdy ('twit, royal bum, stupid castle') , and there's a satirical use of ye-olde English font in parts. My Son, Bert, aged 5, likes that the princess scowls, plays with a yo-yo and wears yellow baseball boots (he notices these things!).   

The book has plenty of humour, and laugh-out loud moments at that. Edie (3) loves the part where the princessly shorts are set on fire, and I like the more dry (adult-pitched) jokes about flying 'Dragon -Air', the dragon sniffing nasal spray and the prince putting on a bossy parent voice by referring to Sue as Susan. 
The Worst Princess is refreshing and brash. Its a very welcome addition to our bookshelf, and sits proud and loud alongside all the cutesy, squeaky clean nonsense my daughter also, sadly, likes.  

Tuesday, 21 February 2017

If I Could Be

Author: Pippa Goodhart
Illustrations: Nick Sharratt
If I Could Be is a double edition of the books You Choose and Just Imagine 
Publisher: You Choose first published by Doubleday in 2003, Just Imagine first published by Doubleday in 2012. If I Could Be first published by Doubleday in 2014. 

My three oldest children (7, 5 and 3) were sprawled out on their bellies on the landing this morning, 'choosing' together from this book, and discussing, with great excitement, their selections, so I felt If I Could Be deserved a post tonight. This book wouldn't be my first choice of bedtime story, but it is the first choice always, of Bert, 5 and increasingly Edie, 3. It isn't my choice, as basically the book involves giving children categories of goods or ideas to select from which generally involves a lot of procrastinating, thinking, changing of minds, and draws out bedtime no end! If you've got a lot of time on your hands, a long car journey maybe, and you want to stimulate discussion and get into the mindset of your child, this is the book for you. 

The first section of this double edition, You Choose, offers scenarios to choose from, generally stooped in everyday life: so based on what to wear, how to get there, what to eat and what to do. On each double page spread of this large hardback there's a bright background colour and busy page of images, with a question posed at the top. There's a tentative link through the themes, so choosing where you would live moves into what you would put in your house? At 5 years old, Bert has started to make relational choices, so for example he matches his choice of riding round in a VW Beetle on the transport page, to selecting a flower T shirt on the what to wear page, saying that people who drive beetles like flowers. This book is fantastic for getting children to argue, discuss, share their thoughts, claim ideas and express themselves. It can be frustrating for children with limited vocabulary though, unless you share as a very patient parent happy to point and smile and not impart you own ideas on every page. 

The second book in the double edition is Just Imagine: this one tends to have more fantasy scenarios, such as asking children to imagine being small, or not human, or being magical. In terms of building vocabulary this book is fantastic, as there's so much to see, label, infer, relate and categorise. While there may not be much to physically 'read' on each page, the book is promoting these basic reading skills all along. 

Nick Sharratt's illustrations work so hard in this book. They are all equally bold and bright, with no obvious a emphasise or stand out pictures. Control and decision making is really handed over to children with this book, making it suitable for building attachment relationships ( thumbs-up as adoption friendly though beware of the 'choosing your family' page; we emphasise the 'choosing friends' angle harder on this page). 

In all, a fun, exciting book that would make a good addition to any classroom, nursery, or home bookshelf. It's interactive angle means you need to choose wisely when to read. This is a noise- inducing book, and a book for sharing ideas ( not calming!) - prepare for sibling squabbles and fall-outs over claims to ideas, but equally prepare for being invited in on those funny and touching moments, such as when children suggest items or ideas for each other ('Edie would love those flip flops' suggested Bert this morning, 'and I would like a pet lion and three robot dogs please!' Edie replied). If I Could Be is like a ticket into your child's imagination, a mirror to shine at phases of child development; it promotes creativity, drama, independent thinking, matching skills, critical thinking,'s a very very useful book.  

Monday, 20 February 2017

The Quangle Wangle's Hat

Words by Edward Lear
Illustrations: Helen Oxenbury
Publisher: First Published by William Heinemann 1969. Featured edition Puffin Books, Picture Puffins Series, 1982.

Here's a treat from one children's literature fan to another, The Quangle Wangle's Hat by Edward Lear. 
Now I can't say my children share my passion for this book, though my daughter will choose this occasionally as she knows I like it, but on the whole, its bizarre and by that I mean more 'avant-garde' bizarre rather than bizarre funny: its delicious, a lovely read-aloud rhyme.

Written by Edward Lear, better known for composing The Owl and the Pussy-Cat, The Quangle Wangle has a similar dreamy lilting musicality. In this story the creature, a Quangle Wangle Quee (how lovely does that sound read aloud) lives alone in a tree. He wears a strange hat covered in ribbons, bells and buttons, and no one can see his face. One day some canaries stumble on the Quangle's tree, high on a hillside. The Quangle Wangle Quee welcomes them, and the canaries are soon followed by a whole band of creatures who keep the Quangle company forever more; a stork, duck, owl, snail, bumble-bee, frog, and then the excitement begins as the collection of creatures grow more elaborate, non-nonsensical and imaginary: the Fimble Fowl with corkscrew leg, Golden Grouse, the Pobble (with no toes), the small Olympian Bear, the Dong (with a luminous nose), and 'the Blue baboon, who played the flute, And the Orient Calf from the Land of Tute.'   

Accompanied by Helen Oxenbury's delicate, detail-rich illustrations this book is a joy on the eyes and ears. Its a very 'busy' story, character full, ending with dance and music as the creatures live in harmony all on the tree together. It's somewhat hallucinogenic feeling, with the now unfamilar dated pastel colour palette (on the 1980s print era), the multi-coloured made-up animals dancing on disc-like leaves, and as such I would avoid reading this book with the first strong coffee of the morning, as you'll need your composure. 

This version of The Quangle Wangle's Hat reminds me very much of my 2010 edition of Where the Wild Things Are (Maurice Sendak, originally written and illustrated in 1963), particularly the scene where the loud trumpeting creatures prance around merrymaking. I wouldn't be surprised if inspiration had been taken cross textually by both writers and illustrators involved in these two works at some point in time.  

In terms of themes, The Quangle Wangle's Hat is probably one of the most innocent and light-hearted of stories I have come across in Children's Literature so far (and thus differs hugely from the very dark, Where the Wild Things Are). The Quangle Wangle is about coming together, embracing individuality (and bizarre-ness), hoping for company and wanting to be accepted, and becoming part of things, or even being at the centre of that coming together. This is interesting, given that the Quangle is the ultimate in reclusive, he's 'different', a sort of tree hermit, covering his face (or having his face covered?). Another thought would be that the Quangle is also welcoming, and appears to have power or possession, or at least be a gate keeper to the big Crumpetty tree where all the creatures seek to live. Politically then, The Quangle might stand as a guardian of nature or some kind of religious or cult guru, a wise man or leader maybe. 

All in all, this book feels psychedelic and pushes hard at the unexpected; it is a convention- defying book (and in my experience children feel very uncomfortable (initially)with this lack of convention at least on the first few reads). While as an adult it feels uplifting and optimistic, the themes here go astray with children, and on reading this Edie complains, 'but where is the Pobble from?' 'what is a Fimble Fowl', searching for some logic. And of course, as not to disappoint, you end up filling in the blanks, 'well the Pobble had a big belly, short legs...', which is I expect, exactly what poet Edward Lear intended.   

Sunday, 19 February 2017

Tom and the Island of Dinosaurs

Author and Illustrator: Ian Beck
Publisher: First published 1993 through Doubleday, featured edition Picture Corgi, Random House 1995

For me this book has all the ingredients of a perfect children's picture book. Firstly (and in no order of priority), plenty of adventure, excitement and a good rescue mission storyline. Secondly, sumptuous illustrations with a lot of texture, depth of perspective and landscapes that feel very epic. Thirdly, whimsical characters- a boy who commands his own hot air balloon (and in the subsequent sequel, a raft), a girl on a desert island saving dinosaurs, and a grandfather, living in a lighthouse and ready to listen to his grandson's stories. As plot devices go, Ian Beck has created a plethora, all pitched beautifully at the curious minds of children; at every turn there's a new idea to fuel the fantasy, a volcano erupting, magic flowers to attract dinosaurs, a struggling baby dinosaur to help. What this achieves is a very gender neutral book, with plenty of fixes in the story to interest across gendered reading norms. My daughter (3) for example, loves the idea of a message in a bottle, the rescue itself, and dinosaur protector and architect of the plan, being a female lead. My son (5), loves the exploding volcanoes and the idea of character Tom, braving the elements alone to perform a daring rescue.  

As I said in my review of Benedict Blathwayt's The Little Red Train series, it's rare to find in children's literature, a writer who writes as well as he illustrates, but in Ian Beck we have that very thing. Beck uses lots of hatching techniques, mainly through exposed cross hatching, dipping and ticking penwork to create very textured, layered pictures. He is generous with his picture-per-page ratio and there are plenty of big double spreads in this book that wow; my children particularly like the dramatic volcano erupting page in this title. Beck has a real talent for drawing sea, cloud and smoke especially, which offers a lot of depth and movement to the page, his work is really captivating. 

To find fault with this title I would suggest that the type-font or type set of the book is dated, I think it's written in Times New Roman, which I find hard to read personally. And while I like the pace of the book, as the story always grips my children, there is a lot going on, and such a complicated plot in a very compact exposition, might be confusing to some. The plot is a little frenetic, very fantastical and takes a confident reader to interpret which sections of the narrative to emphasise. When 7 year old Alf read Tom and the Island of Dinosaurs to his siblings a few days ago, it sounded like there was an exclamation mark after every sentence end, as to him, every moment in the book was remarkable and worthy of expression. (And I would agree). 

In all, a hugely enjoyable book, perfectly matched at the 3-6 year old market, and I'm sure it's inspired many a dream in our house; my middle two children have certainly role played at saving dinosaurs (with the carpet as the sea) following reading this book.  

Saturday, 18 February 2017

Treasure Island

Usborne Young Reading version of Treasure Island
Based on the story of Robert Louis Stevenson
Retelling: Angela Wilkes
Adaption: Sam Taplin
Illustrations: Peter Dennis
Publisher: Usborne, 2007

Tonight I really enjoyed reading this adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island to my seven year old boy Alf. This adaptation is part of series two in the Usborne Young Reading scheme, and is aimed at 'readers who are growing in confidence'. Part of a reading scheme this book may be, and indeed Alf has read many from this series through school, but actually they're great for adults to read aloud as bedtime stories too, especially condensed classics such as this one, as I think we're still a year or more away from his interest and concentration being such as to listen to the real thing chapter by chapter, night by night. 

This took me about 20-25minutes to read aloud at a good steady pace, with interjection time for questions and elaboration. The main point of departure from the novel, and most sanitised part of this classic, is the absence of the 'black spot' (chapter 1, The captain's secret), which was a shame I felt, as this pirates folklore was a highlight for me in the novel. The arrival of the blind man and death of Billy Bones needed a lot of elaboration too, I felt, to bring this adaptation anyway near as gripping as the novel. Likewise Jim Hawkins hiding in the apple barrel lost all sense of fear and thrill in this version, but then, this adaptation is more of an introduction to the plot only, rather than the anything of the texture and feel of the story. It's intended for a different purpose than the novel of course, and to sustain interest (especially from the target audience of 5-8 year old boys I assume) the book moves forward fast, only a little too fast given the breadth of characters introduced. At points Alf lost track inthe whose who. In fact, this Usborne Reader feels a bit like the exposition section in The York Notes, only on speed, no wonder we both got lost. 

What we liked about this adaptation though- the graphics feel very 'classic' and the thought bubbles from characters bring foresight to characters are feeling. Alf loved the gung ho of the plot, with Jim Hawkins climbing rigging, shooting with pistols, hiding in forts and chartering row boats to save the day. The book is action packed and readable in one session, though as an early reader it is also suitable to be read alone and can be dipped in and out of with the short chapters.  The vocabulary suits slightly younger readers than Alf too, maybe 5-6, but he was interested in the pirate specific words and pirate specific code, such as the reading of the treasure map and the double bluff of Long John Silver. In all, this is a good, comforting read best placed as a one-off bedtime story when in between chapter books with the older readers (+7 years in our house). It left Alf asking ' for the real thing' tonight, which was exactly my intention. 

Friday, 17 February 2017

Miffy's Birthday

Author and Illustrator: Dick Bruna
Publisher: original publication Mercis Publishing bv, 1970, featured edition Simon and Schuster UK, 2015
Original Translation: Patricia Crampton 1995, featured edition Tony Mitton 2014

Today we heard the sad news that Miffy creator Dick Bruna had died, promoting my daughter and I to revisit a book she used to love about a year ago, Miffy's Birthday. She still enjoyed Miffy ( at 3 and a half) but was a little more critical than before, 'why doesn't Miffy smile?' Yet this very point, the emotional void, was why Edie seemed to enjoy Miffy books aged two in the first place. They're very inclusive books at this age because there's no expectations or need to read faces and guess the emotion, and with Miffy, you'd draw a blank anyway, she always looks like this:

Now interestingly, Miffy's Birthday is all about emotion, namely how Miffy is feeling at  various points in the day. This disjuncture between the emotionless but iconic Miffy illustrations and the, at times sugary sounding, emotion-filled text does strangely work, and even make sense to very young children, whose emotions 'catch them up' in unexpected toddler outbursts. A good example of this disjuncture in the book is, 'She choose a pretty dress to wear, the prettiest she had. For it was Miffy's birthday and it showed that she was glad' - cut to Miffy with her characteristic non-expression 'x' mouth. Perhaps on the same principle then, Miffy might prove non threatening, so useful as a character, to introduce to children with a wide range of additional needs. (She wouldn't work for all - the flip side is that to others, her emotional vaguarity might be considered confusing).

Miffy works in a very similar vein to the Meg and Mog Series Jan Pienkowski, and it's no coincidence that they come from the same literary era. Both are simple to their core, slightly psychedelic in their colour scheme, thick bold colour background mattes with black outlines. Miffy has become her own trademark, a global image brand; she is safe, sellable, and translatable. She always looks the same, the rhyme is dependable (simple 4-line rhyme), she goes about doing simple things, like seeing her grandparents, receiving birthday presents, having a birthday tea. For a toddler this predictability is comforting, controlled, calming even. As an adult is gets very tiresome. Miffy books are reliable bedtime material for two year olds, and Dick Bruna deserves his place amongst children's literary legends, but I'm not so sure Miffy captures and keeps an adult audience as well, well at least not his one!

Wednesday, 15 February 2017

I am Batman

Adapted by Catherine Hapka
Illutrations: Pencils by Adrian Barrios, Digital Paints by Kanila Tripp
Inspired by the film The Dark Knight
Publisher: HarperCollins, DC Comics, 2008

This book is part of the I Can Read! series; this title sits in the level 2 category, 'reading with help' (billed as 'high-interest stories for developing readers'). I'm truly grateful for this series as at various moments in their journeys to learn to read both Alf (now 7) and Bert (now 5) have declared that 'books aren't for them' (historically this has been at about 4 and a half), and this series has coaxed them back.  Without having ever seen the film Batman: Dark Knight they still expressed the opinion that 'Dark Knight Batman in black' was far cooler than 'Batman Bold and Brave in Blue' (so says five year old boys then). With these books it's like the battle to engage is won simply from the cover. 

In I am Batman the first half of the book introduces Batman, his alter ego, his gear, his gadgets, and some of his friends, such as Lucius Fox and Police Lieutenant Gordon. The second half of the book offers a smidgen of story; Batman's friend Rachel throws a party gatecrashed by The Joker, and Batman, and his gadgets, come to the rescue. There's a satisfying ending, with the joker about to spend time in jail, and Batman uttering the famous words, 'I am not just Bruce Wayne. I am Batman.' 

The graphics in the book are comicbook-like enough to feel grown up and as if you're accessing a book for older children. The prose is a little confusing: while the sentences are short, sensibly, there's a lack of fluidity in what's being told ( but then this is 'Batman' so that's fine, we're expecting some macho grunts). The vocabulary is very challenging, and there's a host of American English spellings and words: 'armor' for example, and 'apartment', but saying that, the batman specific vocabulary is appealing to my boys: 'gadgets', 'crime fighting gear', 'batarang' ( I'm always surprised how they remember these words and then they crop up in their own writing). Anything that fuels an interest in reading for that crucial 4-5 year old boy age group, to me, is worthy of applause. 

Tuesday, 14 February 2017


Author and Illustrator: Jez Alborough
Publisher: Walker Books, 2000, featured edition 2001

Hug has a place on our nurseryroom bookshelf, it might not be for every child though. It's a bright, funny, emotion rich book, containing one simple word, and one simple message - 'hug'! Actually the message is a little more flowery than that- everyone needs a hug, everyone wants a hug, the best hugs are from mums...we can hug to say thanks, group hugs mean celebration. Why not for 'every child' then? Well, because some children feel uncomfortable being hugged and that's ok. For us, the book was very useful as a way of inviting a hug with our newly placed adopted child, but it took a long time for a hug to be 'comfortable' or even sought (baby monkey Bobo is searching for a hug in the book). Bobo
eventually finds his hug, running into the arms of 'mummy' (it's a shame the parent was specified but then 'mummy' is quite an ambiguous term for 'loved one' to a toddler, at least it's a pretty transferable term in our house at the moment, 'mummy' being generic for mum, dad, siblings, anyone else, with our toddler).

The book relies on an enthusiastic adult reader making the most of their abilities in drama or performing arts to fully engage. If the adult is prepared to act like a crazed mime artist the children look on in bewilderment and enjoyment and soon ask for the book again (as with most comedic displays I suppose!) 

As for 'emotion rich', the book is clever and useful here; initially baby Bobo spots elephants hugging and looks interested, he then admires hugging chameleons, moving on to snakes, and finally he starts to look puzzled (where is his hug?). Wordlessly the other jungle animals gather round and look concerned for sad lonely looking Bobo. The elephant and her calf 
then help Bobo search for his hug/mum, and he increasingly looks on in jealousy, distress, 
panic as he fails to find his 'hug', watching a lion family hug, giraffes embrace, hippos snuggle. Bobo screams 'HUG' in despair as all the other animal gather and gasp. He sits on a rock and sobs. His crying is heard by his mummy, who shouts for him in delight. They embrace, surrounded by a rapturous applause from all the other animals. Bobo thanks the elephants for their help (with a hug), the animals celebrate by hugging. And all of that exposition is told through illustrations and one word alone, so it's very very clever! 

To reiterate though, sharing a hug, building this intimacy is not a given with all children, even toddlers, and it's good to respect this (so for example some children, but not all, with ASD and RAD). Yet Hug could be very useful with this group, especially as a means of talking through emotions, and discussing why the monkey searches for a hug. Before purchasing for a SEN or LAC library though, be aware that one of my children interpreted the monkey as 'lost' (thankfully not abandoned), and worried the monkey wasn't loved. This is a very simple, innocent, sweet, useful book, but it can pack a big punch. 

Monday, 13 February 2017

Freight Train

Author and Illustrator: Donald Crews
Publisher: Sandy Creek 1978, featured edition HarperCollins Greenwillow Books, 2010

This is the dream book of my 18 month old, George. It's a big, chunky-sized board book, tick; it's about trains, tick; a big long steam freight train, double tick; there are very few words, tick; and it really improves if the adult reading the book adds their own train noises, smiley-faced tick.

For me, this book isn't a patch on another preschooler train book I recommended,
Rattle and Rap, but it remains a staple of our weekly reads as it's so popular with George at present. From experience, my three older children had tended to have outgrown this book by 2-2.5 years, but they currently enjoy reading it to George, and do better train noises 'going through tunnels' than I could ever do. 

The 'story' (and I use that term loosely as there is no real story) is about a train's journey along a track. Elements of the written word rhyme, so for example: 'A train runs across this track. Red caboose at the back' , but mainly the written element of the book is very understated, single words on some pages, 'gone.' As such, the book is strangely eerie, it uses silence in an interesting capacity: there are long pauses as the eyes are drawn to the trails of monochromatic steam left behind by the 'Freight train. Moving.' 

Very young children love going through the colour wheel of carriages in this book: 'green cattle car, Blue gondola, car, Purple box car,' (it becomes so repetitious for adults - and what's a gondola and caboose' anyway?! ). The illustrations are sleek and stylised, they capture a sense of movement and speed nicely, and the black and primary colour palette obviously hugely appeal ( are visible to) even the youngest of babies and toddlers. 

The book needs to be read aloud (well) and sound effects added for maximum impact. The cut-through on the train-in-tunnel page is really effective if you make a whooshing noise and stop as the bank returns, whooshing again as the train reappears. Again, this is all an exercise in playing with noise and silence; quite interesting for a children's book, captivating for young children going through the 'permanence' stage. 

In all, this is a clever, stylish book, but the long silences, simplistic block pictures are just so unfamiliar, so unconventional against today's children's literature market, you can't help feeling a little undersold. My 18 month old overrules me though, he votes with his feet, and this is usually the first book turfed off the shelf and placed in my lap. Whoosh! 

Here's a link to some Frieght Train inspired activities to support reading: 
HomeGrownFriends Freight Train Activities

Sunday, 12 February 2017

The Storm Whale

Author and Illustrator: Benji Davies
Publisher: Simon Schuster, 2013

I'm not sure what to make of this book, it makes me feel quite uncomfortable, which is no bad thing- kid lit that's challenging; now there's a thing. Sharing this story with a child is fascinating, they see the world through the eyes of lead character, young boy Noi, so the whale washed up in the beach (of course it's alive), but as an adult, is the whale dead?! How dark is this book? 

From an adult's perspective, Noi lives in a remote area by the sea, his father is a hardworking fisherman with sole care of his son. Due to the nature of his job, he's away for long periods, sailing dangerous seas at considerable risk to his life. Noi has six cats for company; he might be lonely, he seems to have a big imagination. He wanders about on his own a lot. He craves the attention of his dad. He finds a dead or dying whale washed up in the beach, he takes the whale home and puts it in the bath. His dad arrives home, doesn't realise until late at night that the whale is in the bath. The dad is shocked, outraged, saddened, worried, he realises he's neglecting his son, spends time with his son (still needs to earn a livelihood though?!). He indulges his sons' fantasises about releasing the whale. Then there's a twist- father and son sit happily together having a picnic, looking out on the whale and his mother/ father swimming away. The whale has brought Noi and his father closer together, whatever. (The whale is a metaphor for a missing/ absent/ dead mother?) This book is about the complexity of love; love requires keeping things close (father- son) and at the same time, letting things go (boy-whale)? 

From the child's perspective: Noi has all day to play on the beach, he has a net and bucket and goes around exploring. He's a lucky boy (but, I quote my three year old, 'you can't see his smile though, so he might be a sad boy too'. Noi finds a poorly beached baby whale and so he tries to help him. Noi doesn't know how to help the whale but he tries his best (adult perspective: the dad tries his best with Noi but he doesn't know how to help/ connect with him either). Noi realises he needs to keep the whale wet, so he finds his radio flyer and carts the whale off home to the bath. 

 The whale is nursed and cared for in the bath by the boy. The boy has a new friend. The dad arrives back home. The boy keeps his new friend a secret from his dad. (I quote my five year old here: 'The dad finds the whale in the bath and says to Noi that whales can't live in bathtubs, but that they should be outside in the sea.') The dad and boy take the baby whale back to the sea and let him free. The whale finds his mum (my children all think the big whale is 'the mum'?!) , and the whales and the humans both live happily ever after. 

As such, Benji Davies is one seriously clever author to write a very simple picture book like this which supports two parallel readings, one for adults and one for children. The illustrations in The Storm Whale are reminiscent of those poe- faced boy images in the work of Alex Jefferies. This is an amazingly thoughtful and provocative book, with themes of loneliness; mortality; rescue; neglect, care and attention; imagination; friendship; freedom and capture. The book invites many readings, many themes and many discussions; it wouldn't be out of place in any primary school classroom, and in fact I've found some fantastic online resources to support reading or use in teaching:
The Storm Whale teaching ideas
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