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Thursday, 13 April 2017

Gangsta Grandma- Guest Post

Gangsta Grandma
Author: David Walliams
Illustrator: Tony Ross
Publisher: HarperCollins Children's Books, 2011

Guest Post tonight! Here's a review from my eldest son Alf ( age 7) who finished reading this book today...

Tuesday, 11 April 2017

Rose Blanche

Rose Blanche
Text by  Ian McEwan  (based on a story by Christophe Gallaz)
Illustrator:Roberto Innocenti
Publisher: First published by Jonathan Cape, 1985, edition featured Red Fox Books (Random House) 2004

Goodness me, this packs a mighty punch. I read this for the first time tonight, borrowed from our local library. I normally find books that I can read aloud to a few of my children at once, but I read this tonight with just Alf (age 7). It was a tender read. He asked lots of questions about this book, a book which depicts a German child's experience of World War II. It really was hard not to well up when he said, 'Rose Blanche looks the same age as me is she?' In bringing the horrors of the Holocaust to such a young audience, the author and illustrator have been very brave here, and have as such, offered a remarkable and valuable piece of Holocaust education.    

The sepia grain of Roberto Innocenti's illustrations are haunting, and his work in this book resonates that of political mural artists, such as Diego Rivera, with emotions etched on the faces of the victors and the victims alike. With shallow eyes and the shadow on faces of those exhausted, desperate and afraid, my son really studied the page as we read. Alf responded to the realism in the illustrations particularly, associating Rose Blanche with a girl in his class at school. Both age and appearance of the protagonist allowed my seven year old to relate to the story, making this book very significant in terms of its contribution to the wider body of Holocaust literature, again being aimed at and indeed about, such young children. 

The heart wrenching subject matter of the Holocaust is introduced sensitively, through the eyes of the bystander child Rose Blanche.  The book is written from an observational perspective, in third person narration, but more so, in that the central character, Rose, is managing to carry on with her life relatively untouched by what is happening around her, until she witnesses children in her town being mysteriously taken away against their will. 'Innocence' and especially the innocence of children, is a prevalent theme here, and contrasts nicely against the fat, vulgar, cowardly mayor character. As the story unfolds, Rose's curiosity, sympathy and compassion, lead her to follow the lorry that 'pale faces in the gloom' are packed in to.The child victims in the concentration camp are at first, poignantly portrayed in long shot, as 'motionless' as their description. Their faces are obscured by the wire, which led Alf to ask questions about why these children were inside, and Rose was on the outside, then why the children were not fed, and why Rose brought them food. Alf was also able to pick up on a lot of the danger and fear faced by the children in the camp and Rose herself, as Ian McEwan uses a subtle, age appropriate signifies, such as 'winter', 'chilly', 'silent', 'sad', 'hungry' keeping the language of the book comprehensible to young children (6 and upwards I would suggest). 

The conclusion of the book is incredibly sad, with Rose Blanche being shot as she makes her way to feed the children in the camp, her friends. Symbolism of hope rather than death is offered at the end of the book, with spring emerging from the battlefield wastelands; 'spring has triumphed' closes the story.  
This book makes such a compelling and important contribution to foundation years children's literature. It's a hard hitting read, raising lots of questions, on a subject that, as Alf and I agreed tonight, must always be remembered. 

Monday, 10 April 2017

Winnie the Witch

Winnie the Witch
Author: Valerie Thomas
Illustrator: Korky Paul
Publisher: Oxford University Press, first published 1987, edition featured (25th anniversary edition) 2012

This book, Winnie the Witch, is the original from a series of now 15 picture books all featuring lovable, ungainly witch Winnie and her loyal pet cat, Wilbur. We have 10 of the books in this series, and they're a favourite with my children when in their preschool year. With slapstick humour, involving lots of clumsy Winnie tripping over her cat, and a reluctant Wilbur doing things he's not necessarily happy about, going under the sea, going up in space for example, the books hit the funny bone of this early years age group perfectly. So much so, books in this series are frequently chosen by my daughter (3), to bring in for 'Show and Tell' at nursery (I expect she gets a guaranteed laugh as Korky Paul's illustrations of erratic Winnie tell the story nicely in themselves).      

The illustrations, being self contained, remind me of graphic novel illustrations, with the attention to detail in the architectural backdrop (I love Winnie's complicated black Gothic castle). There's also a story arc through the series, in that we see some members of Winnie's family more than once, and we also get reminders of what what Winnie and Wilbur like and in Wilbur's case, dislike: there's a consistency here that empowers young children inviting them to recall and remember. Likewise, there's a consistent lead-in to Winnie casting a spell; my daughter loves to join in: 'she picked up her magic wand, waved it 3 times and...'  

On occasion the layout of the double page spread is a bit confusing, especially in this original title, as at one point there's a horizontal spilt page (it frustrates me ever time that I read aloud the wrong section first!). Some of the double page spreads are used really well though, being awash with watercolours for the casting of spells for example.    

The story line of each book is very formulaic (but why not, it works so well), generally involving Winnie being clumsy and accidentally messing up a spell or over-dreaming an aspiration. She then goes about righting her wrongs, with her black cat in despairing pursuit. The general message of each book is that friendship lasts out, problems always have solutions and mishaps can be remedied. In this edition of the series, Winnie the Witch, Winnie is fed up with Wilbur being a black cat whom she fines hard to see in her black house. Winnie, casting a spell, turns Wilbur green, but then when he's outside on the green glass, she can't see him again (in another book in the series Winnie's terrible short sightedness is confirmed!) A witch's solution to not seeing seeing her cat, is of course, to turn her castle multicoloured so her black cat stands out. Such simple but clever solutions and happy endings run throughout the series.  

What my daughter seems to love about this series, is the very honest and human quality of Winnie (the same reason she's really starting to get into The Worst Witch TV Series on children's television channel CBBC, and for that matter I hear Winnie and Witch herself has been made into a children's cartoon series on Channel Five (Milkshake) but haven't caught this yet. (Your thoughts are most welcome). Each book charts Winnie's mood quite nicely, showing how she feels sad and empathetic toward Wilbur when he's teased by birds in a tree for being so colourful for instance. With this depth in a protagonist, you can see whythe series seems to have a really strong, and now generational, fan following. There's also a lot of movement in Korky Paul's witch depiction, with Winnie's beads often being shown as flying everywhere. I also like Winnie's scatty flyaway hair and what looks like a rushed application of black lipstick. Winnie is a fun and uncouth witch character, gangling, grinning, always trying her hardest (oh yes, much like Jill Murphy's Mildred Hubble (The Worst Witch Series ) aimed at slightly older readers).     

And if that wasn't all enough to draw the attention of the preschooler, the front and back endpapers of each book in this reissued 2012 Winnie series, include fan art. My children love examining these pictures and then playing, 'guess the age of the child artist'. regardless of age, these pictures have inspired our own Winnie art creations (as the children were really keen, given the endpaper above, to try out pastels on black paper too). 

If you like this book, with a strong female protagonist, you might also like: The Worst Princess

If you're a fan of Winnie the Witch, here's a the OUP endorsed Winnie website: Winnie and

Friday, 7 April 2017


Author and Illustrator: Catherine Rayner
Publisher: Macmillan Children's Books, 2009

This is a fun, three-minute read for preschoolers. The concept, a 'rather large' and 'very determined' moose called Ernest puzzling over how he might fit himself into the book, feels original. The quirkiness increases once Ernest's 'little friend has a BIG IDEA!' (to make the page larger by sticking bits of paper together, simple and effective). 

The chipmunk friend and Ernest are, interestingly, both silent characters, with a third unseen narration voice. In that respect the book is a little reminiscent of the American classic 'if you give a Mouse a Cookie' by Laura Numeroff, illustrated by Felicia Bond (1985). 
What's lovely about this book is the utter simplicity of the story, but the big punch of a message it leaves behind. Firstly, the little friend is always there, tireless in her efforts to help Ernest.   

Ernest also tries hard, using all his efforts to contort himself onto the page. On first reading, we don't really appreciate what the creatures are trying to achieve, as we only see a fragment of Ernest the moose, a little at a time, so we can't really appreciate his true size. The book is humorous in this way, on one page, we see just his bottom, on another 'Ernest's middle fits in easily, but what about the rest of him?' The use of rhetoric directed at this young audience is again, fun; my children certainly try to offer suggestions to these questions 'get a digger!' (their standard line to most things). 

In terms of the writing, less is certainly more here, so very in keeping with the message of the book; 'good things come in small packages'. Each page carries one short line, and there's some lovely vibrant verbs in use, namely 'shimmy, shuffle and shunt' mirrored on the next page by 'squidge, squodge and squeeze.' Capitalisation and different font sizes are also abundunt. 

The illustrations are initially very modest, simple multi-tonal browns and beige against a light green background, but looking closer there's a lot of texture in the pictures with crayon in part and cracked oil paint behind pencil and pen on top of that. The final page, the solution to fitting Ernest in the book, is a fold out approximately A2 size page. This big reveal is incredibly exciting for little ones, not knowing what's under the folds (maybe a slightly gimmicky ending though). Equally, a large loose page is not safe with toddlers, and our version of the book has ripped many many times. I've sellotaped it together, which in way, just authenticates the story-line, as the chipmunk has sellotaped extra paper into the page in order that Ernest can fit.  

In all, a book about persistence and will power getting you where you want to be, a moral about not giving up and a parting message about friendship in that dear friends stand close and help and support us to the very end.   

If you like this you might also like: Shark in the Park by Nick Sharrat

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