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Thursday, 30 March 2017

The Great Big Book of Families

Written by; Mary Hoffman
Illustrated by: Ros Asquith 
Publisher: Frances Lincoln Children's Books, 2010

This book offers a sound contribution to promoting representations of diversity in children's literature, particularly around the topic of families. The Great Big Book of Families depicts, for example, how different families live, what they wear, the pets they have, how they educate their children, the festivals they celebrate, and the holidays they take (including staying at home, which sums up nicely how very inclusive representations in this book are). It's an empathetic book, with the author, Mary Hoffman, clearly being keen not to make assumptions about life in families in contemporary Britian. I like the fact that the book doesn't try to make the saccharine conclusion of 'we're all different, but deep down all the same', like many of its contemporary titles. this book is out and proud in celebrating difference.     


The pen and watercolour cartoon-like illustrations (reminiscent of those by Laurence Anholt) offer depictions of people across a variety of  ages, ethnicity, abilities, having different religious affiliations, and being both many and few in number (those with lots of siblings, and extended family members, those being so called 'only children'). For our 'blended family' (I'm borrowing this term to describe our part birth and part adopted children loveliness!), this book is useful, helping us frame a dialogue with our kids about what we look like, how we're composed as a family. The book includes a representations of families with two mums, two dads, adoptive and foster families. There are also lots of representations throughout the book of interracial families / multi ethnic families, so again, The Great Big Book of Families could be incredibly helpful in opening many dialogues. 

The book hasn't had the greatest reception with my children though. It seems its useful, but overwhelming. The illustrations and layout of the pages are 'busy'; as with the page above, some nice depictions of 4-3 person families are distracted by additional stick-men border pictures. There's too much to see and too many ideas. Five pages in, my daughter, who will sit through very long children's books normally, get quite bored and frustrated with this book. Ironically, given it celebrates difference, she finds the catalogue/ categorising style narrative a little 'samey' saying latterly, 'it just about a lot of people all doing the same thing -standing about together.'  On other pages there's a lot of 'items' or themed artifices in the boarder, and again I think she finds this 'clutter of the page' a little over stimulating. 

A very positive aspect of the book are the many emotions the book explores, not only in the facial expressions of the pictures, but more explicitly in the last few pages of the book there's a nod to family members feeling differently from each other, disagreeing and even fighting, which again, might be very helpful to explore with little ones.
The gimmicky 'spot the cat' picture request on the book title page is again, distracting, and I think the opening page, which attempts to show children how representations of families have changed, goes beyond the point, and feels a bit self congratulating (in that the book attempts to redress this). On an aesthetic level, the type-font looks a bit cheap and spiky, and there are quantitatively  a lot of pictures in the book that include written labels within the illustration (see the family tree page for example). At first I thought the book might therefore me better aimed at my seven year old able reader, who could get more out of the pictures, but he complains that in this book, 'there really is no story.' I have seen non-fiction -fiction hybrids on blended families, captivate much better: Eddie's Tent and How to Go Camping by Sarah Garland for example, and a non fiction such as Kids by Catherine and Laurence Anholt, captivate on the basis of using rhyme. this book is on the whole then, a bit busy in look and a bit bland in address (ironic really?!), but as said above, does make a very welcome and timely response to representing contemporary family life in the UK.   

Wednesday, 29 March 2017

Brambly Hedge: Autumn Story

Author and Illustrator: Jill Barklem
Publisher: HarperCollins 1980
Acquired: School Fayre

My daughter, Edie, (approaching 4 years of age) plonked Autumn Story on my lap today and said, 'I know it's long, but we've got all day'. Well what can you say to that?!

The book isn't 'long' per say, just quite wordy and descriptive, but that's part of the charm. The Brambly Hedge books are, to me, a hybrid between The Beatrix Potter Collection and The Thomas the Tank Engine series. They capture the essence of the British countryside in incredibly intricate illustrations like Potter, in attention to rural traditions, native animals, birdlife, insect life, flora and fauna just like Potter, and they're written in this slightly stiff, posh voice which hoots of Received Pronunciation. Characters are introduced by their titles, Mr Apple, Lady Woodmouse, Wilfred, and this espouses a sense of position and place in the social class hierarchy. Potter was slightly less oblique in doing this I'd say, some of her characters have more of an accent (Jemima Puddleduck) or aspire to great things (Mrs Tabitha Twitchit). And the similarity to The Rev W Awdry's Thomas the Tank Engine Series? In a similar vein to Brambly Hedge, I can read these books aloud and completely switch off to the story, sleep talk them almost. It's possible to read both series of these books so mechanically and yet still my children seem to enjoy them and beg for more! I have long thought that reading Thomas the Tank Engine at any time of the night or day would cure even a hardened insomniac.     

I will be lynched for gender specification here, but Brambly Hedge are really Thomas the Tank Engine for girls. Not to say that only boys like Thomas, and only girls like Brambly Hedge, not at all true, Bert (5) really likes a later book in the Brambly series called The High Hills (1986), but in general, I find the aesthetics and themes of Brambly Hedge really appeal to my daughter, while the aesthetic and narratives of Thomas continue to enthral my son. Again, the two series have much in common: both are about old alliances, community, teamwork, togetherness, friendship and work; both have exciting adventure elements, generally where something goes wrong and needs fixing, or someone gets lost of left behind and needs finding, or an item needs retrieving (against the clock). In Brambly Hedge: Autumn Story for example, field-mouse Primose accidentally strays too far; search parties are sent for her, but she remains resourceful and fortunate, and stumbles on other helpful mouse communities and is eventually reunited with her family.   

What I really like about these books, as does Edie who sat telling me all about this today, is the attention to food, clothes (the materials used), the weather, the smells. The books have quite a sensory appeal, being description rich, vocabulary rich. I also like that they appeal to girls (at least mine!) and have a strong adventure theme, and positive representations of female characters surviving on their own, being skilled and knowledgeable. The tone of the books are a little dated,  particularly in terms of dialogue whereby the characters address each other by name a lot and helpfully talk to themselves allowing the plot to develop. 

All in all, a good quaint 'summer's day in the garden' kind of read. 

If you like this book you might also like:  The Tale of The Flopsy Bunnies by Beatrix Potter

Sunday, 26 March 2017


Author and Illustrator: Ed Vere
Publisher: Puffin Books, first published in 2007, board book featured edition 2008

My eldest child, Alf, is 7 years old and loves a spot of drama: thanks Ed Vere, I feel you contributed to this. BANANA! came into our house when Alf was a few weeks old. With a sparse collection of children's books in the freshly painted nursery, we reached for this board book, again and again. At first we didn't really get it, the book nor the baby. The baby didn't do much but we thought we should probably read to it. The book didn't say much, but we thought we'd better read it. the basic synopsis- two monkeys, one banana, two words (banana (capitalised and followed by various modes of punctuation- !,?,!!) and please (followed by - ?) So instead we 'read' the pictures. This involved describing the pictures at interest from baby. This then evolved into enacting the monkey's gestures (arms aloft, see picture below), making the blase whistling noise for monkey-not-noticing-pleading-monkey (again, see below)...sudden flicker of interest from baby.  

Okay, so there we had it, BANANA! was a book to be performed! 12 bright double page illustrations telling of the complex negotiation around the eating of one banana. Simple and effective. Sometimes my partner and I (newly doting parents might I add) took on reading roles; one of us would be monkey one (stripey red T shirt monkey) who takes to tussling for the banana with monkey two (stripey blue T shirt monkey). Except this would often end in a fight as red monkey, having the epic tantrum on page 5 (see below), was a far more interesting performance role to play compared to blue monkey, who's a bit of a goody goody, and is the first to agree to share. 

This book taught me many things. It's a masterclass in 'less is more'; short,colourful and economic with words. It taught me that a good story for young children, is about the performance and delivery as much as a narrative. BANANA! pushes the adult reader to interact with their audience; to imply, interpret, gesture, offer, initiate and model behaviours in order to tell the story (its an impossible book to simply read- too few words). Indeed BANANA! facilitates the basics of learning to read beautifully, asking that the reader interpret the pictures, recall events, and 'read the illustrations' in order to follow and impart the gist. BANANA! is funny, and engaging; it seems the bigger the read-aloud performance of this book, the more of a reaction you get from children. Having been a fan of the book for 7 years now, my version of the monkey tantrum is raucous, big movements, big facial expressions, gets lots of giggles. Its an enjoyable book and a joy to share. 

This book also has a huge amount of educational scope. It helps promote giving names to emotions, labelling and identifying different emotions even for children at a very young age. BANANA! is so simple I would suggest it's suitable for babies, toddlers even through to preschoolers, it might even have a place in a SEN library, and we certainly use this one to open discussion on emotions with regard to the children's adoption. Currently our baby of the house, George (20 months), stares in bewilderment at us, trying to fathom why we pretend cry when we read this book, why we storm off, why we smile at the end. It's a great book for being playful, role playing emotions, and as such is good for building attachment, for bonding, for showing parent-led emotions, and so I would also recommend this book as a resource for Theraplay. 

And finally, as if that doesn't pack a big enough punch for a 12 page board book, the final parting message of the book is to share, with the monkeys agreeing to disagree. This is a great way to end off a toddler board book, future proofing any sibling encounters along the way. And of course, throw a bit of maths in there for good measure too, as the monkeys and their banana halves mean "two halves make a whole"- fantastic, genius! For a book with just two words, BANANA! says so very much. 

BANANA! should also come with a warning though: my children frequently choose this title to 'read' to their youngest sibling, as it always raises a laugh: performance styles can vary and budding actors develop their own interpretation (usually the style known as 'over-the-top'. Given this, I wouldn't always choose this book at bedtime, as it has been known to 'hype' the children up. In all though, a big monkey thumbs up to Ed Vere for this humorous, clever offering. 

If you like this book, you might also like this 'performance' reliant board book: This is the Way by Charles Fuge

Thursday, 23 March 2017

Norman the Slug with the Silly Shell

Author and illustrator: Sue Hendra
Publisher: Simon and Schuster, 2011

Norman the Slug with the Silly Shell makes an ideal one-off read-aloud to a preschool or reception class. It's laugh-out-loud funny on the first read, not quite so funny on subsequent reads as the 'big reveal' at the end is then anticipated. It's bright, bold graphics can be seen clearly from afar; a bit garish up close mind, especially as the icing and sprinkles on the doughnut motif is repeated throughout. 

I suppose any book that makes me sympathise with a slug is worth its salt (pun intended!), because as a gardener I can't bare these little critters. The concept of a slug being shunned by a group of snails for not having a shell, is amusing. Bullying, and being able to get back at the bullies is a theme here, as is expressing yourself, and doing things your own way, positive life affirming messages for little ones.  

I also like the juxtaposition that 'slug' in this book is not drab, dull, and seeking a dank dark place to live (as in reality) but is fun, enthusiastic, seeking thrill and colour- again, how endearing, and why earth am I on the side of the slug?!  The distinction between slug and snail isn't always quite so clear for little ones though, so a lot of the humour in this book goes over younger children's heads (though kids do tend to laugh when adults laugh, so the book still works). The adult aligned humour continues when Norman tries out different shells; a tennis ball, alarm clock, maggoty apple and then...a doughnut, all ending in eager and funny calamity.    

'Fitting in' is harder than Norman finds, as while the snails now except he is a snail, a bird then targets Norman's fantastic edible looking shell, and carries Norman and this shell away. Norman then relies on his old snail ways to rid himself of the bird slipping free of his shell by squirting out his slug slime. The message here is more 'be yourself', 'embrace who you', so again, thematically, some lovely ideas to bring to preschoolers.  Moments of peril, with Norman in the birds mouth and then falling through the sky, are quite gripping for the target 3-5 year old age range here. Again, the big reveal, of Norman wishing he now had wings (this is comedy genius!), and this flakiness in mood is of course very reminiscent of toddlers themselves, so there's humour galore in this short picture book.  

The illustrations let the book down a little, feeling a bit under-invested. Edie (3) is bothered by the re-occurrence of the red bird that she sees has previously had Norman in its beak, being back and close to Norman at the end. Little inconsequential illustrations like this make big difference to very inquisitive, processing children, so young child reception of this book was quite mixed in our house. 

All in all though, a fun read perfect for a big audience. 

If you like this, you might also like:   Meg's Castle by Helen Nicoll and Jan Pienkowski

Monday, 20 March 2017

The Berenstain Bears Go On Vacation

Written and Illustrated by Stan and Jan Berenstain, with their son Mike Berenstain
Publisher: HarperCollinsChildrens, 2006

Certainly not the best of The Berenstain Bears series, but a good read nonetheless. Go On Vacation doesn't capture the characters of Mama and Papa Bear, like in the early 1970 book, The Bears' Christmas, with Papa Bear being the egotistic bumbling fool and Mama Bear the despairing, head in hands,gritted teeth, housewife, but it's good to see that the Bear family has expanded since first publications, and this title has a nice, if nonchalant, 'quality-family-time-together' message. 

The narrative is a bit frenetic, aiming to cover activities on everyday of the holiday, but we like that they get rained off from the beach on one day, and end up in a museum (very true to life!) There are a few misadventures along the way, namely 'fog' on the beach, so they go for a 'jog'. (Can't help but think that was contrived, the Berenstain's have been a bit of a slave to the rhyme there). Generally though, the rhyme is fun and insistent, continuing through to the end of the book (though rhyming pattern oddly changes part way through). 

The book does capture the essence of beach life and beach holidays, which are clearly universal as The Berestain Bears is an American series (though I have a false memory of this series actually being Canadian). There's some lovely verse describing the water and the light, and the illustrations depict big skies and pinkish sunsets well.  

The aspect of the story my children like, is Papa Bear's insistence on going fishing (maybe because they anticipate the 'boasting/looser' dad from the Christmas book). Fish, particularly the size of certain fish, is a real theme in the book, with the Bears looking at marine artefacts in the museum and then a page talking about bait, to a the Bears returning to find smug Mama bear and baby Honey bear having caught a 'whopper' earlier that day. 

The pinks and oranges in the book set a real summery, holiday mood, and facets of family fun on holiday, such as building a giant sandcastle, running to the sea, sending postcards, burying someone in the sand are all timeless, and cross cultures. Yes the Berenstains paint a very sugary happy, naive  image of family life, as anthropomorphic bears, but in the context of this book, an insight into a holiday, its within an escapist context. I don't like how the bear illustrations have been fattened, I prefer the scrawnier bear characters in the 1970s editions, as again, this family seems more polished than I recall. Indeed, without the Bears' vulnerability the book still offers something cheery and fun, but not necessarily laugh out loud. A fun quick read (though two pages too long) to 3-5 year olds, and great for introducing children to the idea of a holiday. 
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Saturday, 18 March 2017


Author: The BFG himself, but he uses the pen name Roald Dahl!
Illustrator: Quentin Blake 

I hadn't read The BFG myself as a child; what a joy to discover this book at the same time as my child! We laughed at different moments, we studied different illustrations, but we definitely enjoyed the same book. The experience of discovering and sharing The BFG with my 'notmucher' and 'squeakpip' was like a gloriumptious phizz-whizzing dream for me, a phizzwizzard infact! (and if you're a BFGer, like me, you'll now know what I mean). This book means joining an institution, pre BFG and after. 

Reading the BFG aloud requires embracing and learning a new language, gobblefunk, author Roald Dahl's made up language. The language is built of borrowing and misplacing existing words, much how modern Mandarian evolves, and strangely makes so much sense to a native speaker. Alf (7) however, is less familiar with older formal English, so used the words context ( solely, only) to understand the meaning of the new words. The BFG then, is a fantastic book for building reading comprehension in young children, and the ability to understand how language might imply and infer meaning. 

What Alf and I both agree was or favourite aspect of the book, was the unorthodox ending. Alf kept thinking that the Heads of the Army and Navy would be traitors, and tie the BFG up, but the book turns crazily pro monarchy and optimistic at the ending, and we weren't expecting that. It was refreshing to have such a wildly happy ending, with the BFG employed to live in th UK as a sort of royal dream blower and monarchy defender. 

Alf (7 year old boy) found phizz popping (farting) truly hilarious, whilst I was less hysterical. I was interested in the dream catching, implanting and storing of dreams, whilst Alf said that was too long, and was without the 'bad guys' ( the other giants). On that note, in all these years living alongside, but not in, BFG popular culture in the U.K., I had never realised the BFG was 'the big friendly giant' and that he indeed came from Giantland, and that there would be other giants in this book; it was a magical but also frightening discovery.

Quentin Blake's scratchy little pen drawings throughout, bring welcome visual stimulation forthe reader/ listener, and make the story feel pacy and flowing. I especially liked the silhouettes of the BFG as they made him look larksome and childlike, dancing about in the distance. Alf meanhwile, liked the illustrations that gave him perspective on Sophie's height compared to that of the BFG. We shared, I suppose, the same sense of worry, suspense that Sophie might get eaten by the unruly giant mob, and Alf found the giants descriptive names, 'Childchewer' and 'Meatdripper' for example, both disgusting and very funny in both measure. 

The BFG felt much easier than some of the other Roald Dahl's to read aloud. We've also tried The Twits and Fatastic Mr Fox in the past, but this story was slightly less dialogue laboured and, I felt, flowed more naturally. As with the other Roald Dahl's we have read, elements of the book were scary, such as Sophie hiding from the giant hand in her orphanage dormitory at the start of the book, but at the age range of 6+ years (7years for us), fear and fun developmentally seem to reach a binary and hence Alf experienced fear and excitement, begging not to stop at the end of each chapter. 

In all, a fantastic read, and I'm so pleased I saved some books back in my childhood, to read for the first time with my children. 

Friday, 17 March 2017

Eddie's Tent and How to go Camping

Author and Illustrator: Sarah Garland
Publisher: Frances Lincoln Children's Books, 2015

It's my unwritten rule on this blog to only feature books that have been on our bookshelf for a good three months (minimum), as I want to feature books that have proven longevity with young children. Eddie's Tent and How to go Camping is a library book we've borrowed for three weeks...I'm breaking with the rule here as Bert (5) has requested I read this book to him everyday this week, and so I'm keen to buy the other three titles in the Eddie series. 

Eddie's Tent is a fabulous mix of fiction and non-fiction which is proving very satisfying to Bert's early reader sensibilities. The book feels like the perfect read for 4-6year olds, as this seems to be the age children gain an interest in learning and sometimes reciting fact, with 'understanding the world around them' a feature of the early years British curriculum. The furore of camping also seems like an ideal reach to this age group, and has proved mightly appealing to Bert. This title offers both narrative about a family preparing and then embarking on a camping trip, and practical tips and skills needed for a successful camping trip. There's plenty of camping specific vocabulary such as 'pot hook', 'billy' and 'damper bread', placed in appropriate narrative context so offering implicit learning. I also like that the author pays heed to all the senses, adjectives related to and descriptions of sights, sounds, tastes, smells and the feeling of camping: 'When it was crisp and golden, they ate it with butter. Even the burnt bits tasted good', for example. 

The book is laid out in a way that maximises interest, with each short written piece accompanied by a small picture alongside. The simple pencil and colour illustrations have a child-like quality, they're not overworked or perfected, but resemble what an older child might achieve, so feel obtainable, 'copyable' to young enthusiastic hands (Bert has produced some great tent pictures himself this week, feeling inspired). Camping is itself a very aspirational activity for young children, so again, a great topic. 

We'd also read this book a couple of times before realising it refreshingly represents a blended family (or at least a non-nuclear family).  The parent characters in the book are 'Mum and Tom' and the two younger siblings, 'Lily and Tily' have similar names but different hair colour and skin tone. Later in the story Eddie makes a new friend, Max, who is spending the day with his grandad. The story is very idealistic, both families happy and gathered round the camp fire singing; togetherness and teamwork are welcome themes in this house though, given we're in a big blended family ourselves. 

The story goes off on lots of wispy tangents, which again really gripped Bert's interest. These tangents present family life as fun, so for example everyone practising handstands, sharing fish and chips from the van, and drinking  hot chocolate in the tent. There's also lots of suggests of activities to follow up the reading ( all implied), so for example, reading a compass, making dens indoors, and Eddie even sits down to draw a map of his journey at one interval. There's also a moment of suspense and high drama in the book as new friends Max and Eddie loose Max's puppy and chase him through woods, getting lost. Their newfound adventuring skills lead them to safety. As a really nice outro, the book includes 'some tips for camping' as an index (even though these tips are offered in short interwoven throughout the book too). 

In all, Eddie's Tent would make a brilliant addition to any early years or key stage 1 classroom. It's informative and imaginative, descriptive and explanatory at the same time. I just hope we can return our loan to the library without too much fuss, before our bought copy arrives.  

If you like this, you may also like (this other non-fiction): The Story of The Titanic (for children)

Wednesday, 15 March 2017

Blown Away

Author and Illustrator: Rob Biddulph
Publisher: First published by HarperCollins Children's Books 2014, featured board book edition HarperCollins Children's Books 2016

This book is an emerging favourite in our house. We've only had Blown Away since Christmas, but it's such a cheerful story it's a go-to. 
With character illustrations reminiscent of Oliver Jeffers, the book opens introducing protagonist Penguin Blue as he takes his 'brand new kite' on a 'maiden flight'. A series of mishaps then sees a collection of other Antarctic animals join the unplanned voyage to a 
tropical jungle island. Having found it too hot on the island, even after an ice cream,the  

penguins, polar bear, seal, and the fabulous stowaway monkey, hatch a plan to leave. Catching a breeze, in the same vein that they landed on the island, the travellers arrive home. Penguin Blue is last seen at home ( with hot water bottle and polar bear cuddly bear) -'A lesson learned, there's no denying, This penguin wasn't, built for flying.'  But the cheeky monkey escapee ends the book back on the kite and being blown away. An apt and satisfying ending. 
This is a lovely book to read aloud. The rhyme is structured in isometric quatrain with four syllables and four lines throughout. It's a catchy, lilting rhyme and easy to read from the outset. There's lots of opportunity for expressive reading, especially at the beginning with the action-adventure of the penguin train ascending into the sky unexpectantly. 

I really like the layout of this book, it's very minamilist and spacious with plenty of bright block colour, again, easy to read. The characters are quirky, with fun names, 'Clive' the polar bear, 'Wilbur' the seal for example, and there's a very humourous use of anthropomorphism,  

the seal for example, is introduced pegging out his washing. These human qualities are 
subtle though, and scattered throughout the book making Blown Away quietly witty and offering something on an adult level. 

The narrative works well by setting up the unexpected, much like Oliver Jeffers book Stuck. It's fun and imaginative, with a kite strong enough to drag creatures into the sky and plucky monkey stowaway to keep children aghast. My three year old girl,Edie, loves trying to spot the monkey and his antics and also loves trying to name all the animals. 

Themes in the book include working together, thinking outside the box, embracing the unexpected. Characters are inventive, but also 'know their limits' which is a great message to bring to preschoolers. I also like the use of pattern in the illustrations, making some pictures more symbolic in appearance, so for example, the wind with its direction lines and mini swirls. 
In terms of age recommendation, this book has a wide appeal; starting at 18months in board book edition  for instance, but is still humourous to my seven year old (ideally though, I would be using it 2-5 years predominately).  This is an amusing read, a lovable story with fun sincere characters. 

Saturday, 11 March 2017


Written and Illustrated by: Catherine and Laurence Anholt
Publisher: Walker Books, Ltd, 1992

I feel truly privileged to own a copy of this book. I enjoy reading KIDS hugely, and laugh at the same parts every time (like meeting up with an old friend). The little quips in the book ('here's a kid who hid in some coal' - cue coal dusted child), feel fresh and fun, and despite being written in the 1990s, would be approved as 'PC' even today (I suppose the 'nasty' kids and 'nice' kids might get a bit of a redress in today's classrooms, but my children find these two pages of the book particularly amusing). Generally though being so in line with today's politically correct is incredible really, given that KIDS is about difference and similarity, the sort of topic where what's acceptable and how it's discussed changes rapidly and progressively (on the most part). 

Most importantly with this book, the authors were celebrating and putting diversity on the British children's literature map long before others (with the exception of Janet and Alan Ahlberg possibly, so for example, 'The Baby Catalogue'(1984)), and certainly before this became a part of a wider cultural and political 'agenda'. The differences between kids, as charted in this book, don't feel tenuous or contrived, but natural and not overplayed as those very differences are what kids have in common (nice!)

The book is structured as such, where on each page humourous observations based around a question are made, so for example, 'What do kids look like?' and then there is a reply, in this example 'freckles and badges and ink on their skirts, glasses and smiles and hanging-out shirts.' The Anholt writing and illustrating duo paint this lovely, rich anthology of childhood, showing how gaps in teeth, cuts on knees, getting in a muddle, hiding, stashing items in pockets, having fears, are universal. Alongside the Anholt's signature illustrations (ink and watercolour, detail on clothes, accessories, espousing diversity) the message created is, while kids might all look different there's plenty they do that's the same. 

KIDS is written in iambic tetrameter, so it sounds 'chugging', charging almost. I love that at the end of the book, parent characters are introduced, and they are portrayed as equally diverse, and in a hurry, and busy. On the last page of the book the rhyming verse starts with the letters to spell 'KIDS' in the vertical, and calms the charge right down with 'Kiss us when, It's nearly night: Dads and mums, Switch off the light.' Great memorable way to end and children's book and nice closure for bedtime.

In terms of age range, this book easily spans from 2-7years, and seems more appropriate as my children get older in fact. Alf (7) is all about 'adjective' collecting at school at the moment (this book is plentiful), and he's really starting to explore the concept of difference and similarity against himself - I imagine this is very age appropriate in terms of emotional development. KIDS is a great book for vocabulary building in general though, with the 'verb page' a favourite of mine (eg. 'What do kids do? mix, mess, muddle, comfort, kiss, cuddle'). (Shirley Hughes has a similar technique in her books 'Giving', 'Sharing' etc, as do The Ahlbergs in Baby Catalogue).

All in all, a fantastically educational book, ripe for using in the classroom to support all sorts of grammar exercises, perfect for sharing at home to promote discussion about 'who we are' (see also,If I Could Be),  and a book I like to reach for anytime of the day (like a guaranteed 'pick-me-up') (but preferably with a cup of coffee in hand).   

If you like this book about childhood, you might also like this: Peepo

Thursday, 9 March 2017

Handa's Suprise

Author and Illustrator: Eileen Browne
Publisher: Walker Books, 1994

This is a sweet, very simple story, set in south-west Kenya. It features a little girl called Handa (as the postscript notes, from the Luo tribe in Kenya). Handa goes off to see her friend Akeyo, packing seven types of fruit into a basket as a surprise for her friend. Handa walks purposefully to Akeyo's village, the fruit in the basket balanced on her head. As she walks she thinks about which fruit her friend might choose to eat first. Unbeknown to Handa, a monkey slips down from a near tree and takes the banana from her basket. Handa wonders whether Akeyo would like the 'sweet-smelling guava', just as an ostrich sweeps in to take the guava. A zebra takes the 'round juicy orange', an elephant the 'ripe red mango', a giraffe the 'spiky-leaved pineapple', an antelope the 'creamy green avocado' and a parrot the 'tangy purple passion fruit.'  As Handa approaches Akeyo's village a goat breaks free from its rope, bangs into a tree and tangerines from the tree fall into the basket. Handa announces to Akeyo on meeting that she brings a surprise, but the story ends with Handa being the one who is surprised.     

The illustrations in the book are rich and bright, using many yellows, oranges and browns, especially in the tall grasses, offering a feel of the African landscape. As a snapshot into another culture (we're based in the UK), Eileen Browne has painted an everyday image of two girls from these villages in Kenya going about a simple task, and as such the book celebrates the girls' way of life rather objectifies it as mystifying or exotic. Saying that the traditional clothes and braided hair, the carrying of the head basket, the proximity of the Kenyan animals and the traditional names of the characters all bring insight and enrich the representations of Kenyan life here. I also like though, that some of the fruits featured in the story are 'everyday' for young children in the UK, some might be more unusual. Both difference and similarities (to children in the UK) have a place in this book, the book is inclusive and readily embraces multiculturalism.  At the core of the book for example, is a cheerful story, a story of friendship and kindness that could easily be a universal theme. 

In terms of age-range, this book works well with toddlers (and must surely sell well and do well in board book format?). It is very simple, very soft and calming, very repetitive. It's good for vocabulalry building, especially of fruits and animals. The book is a bit to straightforward and repetitive to interest slightly older children I think, trying to spot and name the animals brings interest to the three year olds, but by four my children at least, have proclaimed to have grown out of this story. Handa's Surprise inspires a vast array of supplementary reading activities online though, so the longetivity of the book could be easily increased. 
In all, this is a short, cheerful book offering insight for young children into a way of life in a specific part of  Kenya. It gets the thumbs up as a read which embraces diversity.  

Wednesday, 8 March 2017

Not Now, Bernard

Author and Illustrator: David Mckee
Publisher: First published by Andersen Press Ltd, 1980. Featured edition published, Andersen Press Ltd, 2012 

Now here's a very dark book. It leaves me with a puzzled look. It takes a jab at parents, or a particular parenting style/ type, or is it taking a stance on children? (should they be 'seen and not heard'?)...and that's why I like this children's book, it's thought-provoking, and really designed as a cautionary tale to adults.

Economical with words, but telling a big story, Not Now, Bernard is about a little boy looking to attract the attention of his parents. He walks from dad to mum, interrupting / interacting as his parents get on with household jobs. Bernard has a knack of speaking to his parents just at crucial moments, so his dad, hammering a nail in the wall in order to put a picture up, bashes his thumb, his mum is watering a pot plant as the pot cracks and drips water over the table. Both parents dismiss Bernard and his mum ignores Bernard's observation that 'there's a monster in the garden.' 'Bernard went into the garden.'  Bernard is then eaten by the monster.

This dry humour then darkens further, as the monster enters the kitchen: the monster is ignored and dismissed by Bernard's mum. A lovely illustration shows the monster puzzled, looking directly at us (the reader). Bernard's father is reading a newspaper, his thumb now bandaged. The monster bites the leg of the father, and the chorus retort is again shouted, 'not now,  Bernard.'   Continuing to show no worry, interest, fear in the monster, Bernard's mother shouts Bernard (who of course is eaten by the monster) to tea. Tea is left in front of the the television (another moment of detachment / practical parenting, depending on your perspective...I expect the author intended the former here, but as a parent of four, I do have a little sympathy for the parents (sorry author David Mckee!). The monster (Bernard himself?) shows signs of being increasingly bored and angry alone in his room. Still ignoring the monster/ or oblivious unintentionally (?) Bernard's mother sends Bernard to bed (the monster obliges).
So this is a very intelligent children's book. it makes some interesting suggestions, comments, but leaves the interpretation and inference firmly with the reader (at least I think it does, I might be missing something?). Are Bernard's parents emotionally abusive? They ignore Bernard, he seeks their attention, they don't meet his emotional needs, yet mum has her pinafore on tending to all Bernard's physical needs (keeping home). Is Bernard the monster? His parents are 'genuinely' busy (though are they as the types of jobs they're doing aren't crucial), Bernard is being very needy, and has a vivid imagination (he can see monsters)- is he lying (again?). Does Bernard become the Monster, rather than being eaten by the monster? Is ignoring a 'monster-child' a good way to cope with a 'monster-child', not remarking on the anti-social behaviours? But then, why is Bernard a monster child in the first place?  These are just a few of the questions the book opens up. Its a psychology undergraduate's dream! Themes we could take from this book include, parent-child relationships (attachment theory/ bonding/ interaction), child psychology (imagination, pestering, boredom), neglect, abandonment, abuse, childhood, adulthood, family dynamics, transference... the list goes on.    

On a less analytical note maybe, Not Now, Bernard is a comedy. My children love the parents' voices growling, 'Not Now, Bernard' at their child (especially if you make mum's voice deep too). The unexpected works well to grab interest (in what other book does the main protagonist get eaten by a purple monster?) It's also humorous on the very principle that children don't necessarily 'read' an alternative ending. Tonight I suggested to Bert (age 5) that Bernard is the Monster.  'No', he said, earnestly, 'It said the monster ate him.' 'Bernard is dead forever.' (eek, and my child said that so matter-of-fact!)

Interestingly the book makes Bert feel quite uncomfortable, he's the sort of child that doesn't break rules and isn't 'a bit of the monster'. The book appeals hugely to Edie (age 3) who break lots of rules and loves hearing that others are 'naughty'. On the basis of it's invitation to put on funny voices and the bright, basic pictures, you could easily read this book to very young children (toddlers), but those children of six years and upward, can really start picking at the comprehension and nuances,and the contradictions in this book.
In terms of the humour, it reminds me very much of the macabre disappearance of the rabbit in I want my hat back by Jon Klassen (I wonder whether this story inspired Klassen's dark thoughts there).  
In all, the book feels very blunt, very short and very critical (of society, children, parenting), but I really enjoy that David Mckee has opened this debate, and applaud the fact he does this in a children's story. It is clever, undoubtedly clever.    

Tuesday, 7 March 2017

We're Going on a Bear Hunt

Retold by Michael Rosen
Illustrator: Helen Oxenbury
Publisher: First published by Walker Books Ltd, 1989, featured edition (with CD) 2007

We're Going on a Bear Hunt is more of a song than a 'story' (in the prose sense of story; song's can tell stories of course). This book is lyrical, rhythmic and catchy. It grafts a place on the memory, inside the imagination. It's quite simply a pioneer of modern read-aloud British Children's Literature. 

The narrative sees a family heading off on a walking adventure, an exploration to track down a bear. 'Bear hunt' as the book opens, seems like a fun sing-song, a beat to walk to on the mild summer's day walk. The family are courageous though, and start battling the elements to venture further afield, waist high grass, a deep river, mudflats, a big dark forest, and the most fearsome element of all, an imposing snowstorm. The sense of trepidation grows as the family venture further forwards, repeating the mantra of 'we can't go over it, we can't go under it, we'll have to go through it' on their stoic way. Through the pictures we see the smaller children are carried by the older ones, hair blowing in the breeze, then flapping in the wind, battling adversity 'stumble trip, stumble trip.' And then, a more frightening idea still, a cave, 'a narrow gloomy cave' at that. As the family tiptoe in, they come face to face with a huge brown bear. The 'teddy bear's picnic' or 'follow-the leader' style game the children seem to have been playing is abandoned, and the 'bear-hunt' is suddenly very dark and foreboding with a 'real' bear involved. To the horror of the reader and any listeners, the bear then chases the children, and the story reverts backwards back through all the elements again (but at a faster speed) (three picture strips per page). Eventually the family reach home, running upstairs, with the shadow of the bear chasing them in the door way. Then, a real nail biting moment, 'we forgot to shut the door', and the whole family work together to slam the door just as the bear arrives on the doorstep. Finding the safest place to be / hide in the house, the children race into bed and pull the cover over their heads. A big pink comfy looking quilt enveloping all the children ends the chase, and the bear is the shown plodding back to his cave (alone). Exhilarating.    

Now what strikes me about writing out the narrative of We're Going on a Bear Hunt is that so much of the book is told by the pictures foremost, the text is almost supporting he illustrations, rather than the other way round (which is the convention in children's books, especially at this time).The illustrations (by Helen Oxenbury) depict movement so beautifully, with all the limbs of the children (and their dog) moving in different places, statures in movement positions, hair flowing. The watercolour illustrations in the book offer insight into the conditions the adventuring family face, and these pages in turn are supported by very simple and repetitive use of onomatopoeia to build this description further, so for example long grass sounds and feels, 'swishy swashy', thick oozy mud is 'squelch squerch'. The book also features these chorus-line pages, in black and white (charcoal drawings I think), in which the family are depicted as contemplating their next move, and next tribulation ahead.    

Childhood, and the freedom to explore and 'let be', seems to be a main theme in the book, with sticks in hand for swashing grass and duvets to hide under. Juxtaposed with that are the very solemn and earnest looks on the faces of the family, when they face a new hurdle to overcome. Their expressions grow graver as the story develops, and they start to huddle together in the snowstorm, the carefree river wade far behind them. Whether this is symbolic of a message about growing up, growing together, working through hard times as a family, I'm not sure, I like to think so, but the message my children relay at this point in the story is more one of battling fear, being afraid and wanting to go back (they often point to the baby/ toddler in the pictures, pulling the older sister back).  We're Going on a Bear Hunt is really interesting like that, being chased, going into a cave, stumbling in a dark forest are all the thing of (childhood) nightmares. I think my children are right, it's about conquering fears, feeling safe (at home), and isn't that such a brilliant message? 

In all, I really love this book. It comes with us on many of our own family adventures, as the text is so rhythmic (I don't know the technical term for the beat the lines play out sadly, but the first two lines of every four echo each other, the third and the fourth are the echoed reply), that when we're trekking across fields or walking (by, rather than in!) rivers with the children, one or two of the children often start reciting this book. Bear Hunt triggers so much in the memory. The vast landscapes in the illustrations feel very nostalgic (the flocking birds for example) and the book seems to smell of summertime (with its depiction of light and long shadows, long grass for example). Yes Bear Hunt does contain moments of nightmare, but then fear really etches in the memory (I have a memory of a teacher reading this very book to me as a child and me feeling out of breath and scared as the bear was 'chasing me'). As such, Bear Hunt also stands as an invitation to imagine, to role play, to dream, to explore.  

Monday, 6 March 2017

Shark in the Park!

Author and Illustrator: Nick Sharratt
Publisher: First published 2000 by Reed Educational and Professional Publishing Ltd, featured edition published by Picture Corgi, 2007

I've long thought this book is the perfect five minute light relief for any nursery class, but today this book managed to captivate two seven year olds (Alf and his mate), a tired five year old, poorly three year old and distracted one year old, at a very busy (late) World Book Day event. Talk about working hard! 

It's a very short book, with straightforward (and very effective) structure; an introduction, three 'sightings' and a funny 'outro'. The formulaic action rhyme which charts young boy, Timothy's, moves as he tracks a shark in the park with his new telescope, gets preschoolers moving ( looking up, looking down, looking all around). This is accompanied by an opportunity for a shout, in that Timothy spies a shark in his telescope viewfinder and sets about alerting people, 'there's a shark in the park!' 

The story is fun and well humoured. Timothy spies a shark in the circular viewfinder, this is a cut-away in the page; when the page turns over the black shark fin is revealed to be part of the anatomy of a cat ( its ear), a crow ( its wing) and my favourite, Timothy's dad's quiff. The reveal is amusing, unexpected, and doesn't tire. 

The book illustrations are incredibly bright, well defined and very characteristic of Sharratt. There's plenty to capture the interest of toddlers here, with the inclusion of kites flying in the distance, worms and snails popping up, lots to spot and amuse beyoung the foreground pictures. 

There's a real economy with words in this book, simple four line rhymes mainly, with plenty of dramatic breathe-inhaling exclamations. Speech bubbles are used to bring in the voice of the wrongly 'accused' sharks. There's a fun, cheekiness about the main character, as he smiles and giggles about his mistakes. 

All in all, a fantastic five minute toddler fix, but also a chirpy little book that makes the whole family smile. 

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