May 2017 ReviewsPosted by Max 09 May, 2017 08:49PM
Two of our favourite picturebooks are about what lies beneath our feet - specifically, what we might find down a hole in the ground. Where did the hole come from? Where does it lead? What might be living down there? What treasures might we find?
The Something (by Rebecca Cobb, published by MacMillan Children's Books) wondrous celebration of a child's imagination. This is a tale that starts when a ball doesn't bounce back - disappearing into a small hole besides a tree adorned by the green buds of Spring, in a boy's back garden. As the boy and his dog look down, we look up at them from the hole.
At first, the boy just waits and wonders. As the tree blooms into colour, the boy begins to ask others what they think might be down there. In the top half of the pages that follow, we see the boy, his family and his friends each taking a turn at guessing what might be below - and in the lower half of each page we see his imagination come to life - a mouse's house, a troll, a snoozing fox, even a dragon. In each scene, the boy's lost ball can be found.
As the pages turn, so do the leaves on the tree as autumn arrives, and finally the tree is bare. The boy is not upset that he doesn't have the answer - rather, he is "pleased that something has chosen our garden to live in".
Rebecca Cobb's beautiful and distinctive illustrations bring her first person narrative to life. There are charming and touching details to be discovered. When the boy's grandparents suggest that if something does live down there it is most likely a mole or a badger, the boy imagines the creatures knitting and doing the crossword - just like his Granny and Grandad are above ground. The diversity of the boy's friends is worth a particular mention.
We adore Rebecca Cobb's books and highly recommend others she's written and illustrated (including The Paper Dolls; Lunchtime; Aunt Amelia and There's an Owl in My Towel - all reviewed on our site).
In Sam and Dave Dig a Hole (written by Mac Barnett, illustrated by Jon Klassen, published by Walker Books) we meet two determined diggers on a mission, who vow that they "won't stop digging until we find something spectacular".
Setting out with their spades into a barren field next to a farmhouse and a single apple tree, Sam and Dave begin to dig. Here we see clear looks of determination from the pair, and their dog. Their cat looks sceptical and watches from the porch step. Jon Klassen's use of 'side-eye' in his characters' faces is second to none for illustrating a huge range of emotions.
They begin to dig down, and then across, at each turn narrowly missing increasingly huge diamonds buried in the earth. They stop for a rest and animal biscuits. When they fall asleep, their dog digs a little further, and opens up a hole in the bottom of the page. They all fall, landing with a bump on the earth below. "That was pretty spectacular" they say. But are they home?
Mac Barnett's sparse narrative is perfectly matched to Klassen's deadpan illustrations. The minimalist style enables readers to focus in on details, and notice new aspects of the story on each reading - it wasn't until recently we realised that the dog is always trying in vain to indicate where the gems are buried.
If you are looking for more books featuring holes in the ground, check out these two (reviewed previously): A New House for Mouse by Petr Horacek; and Rabbityness by Jo Empson.
May 2017 ReviewsPosted by Max 27 Apr, 2017 09:37PM
Like many classic nursery rhymes, fairy tales have an extraordinary ability to transcend generations, cultures and languages. Their plots are filled with mild (and often more than mild) peril. Perhaps one reason for their enduring popularity is that they give children, and the adults they read with, the opportunity to explore challenging themes from the comfort of a cosy bed or another safe space. Many of these fairly tales have a clear resolution, vindicate goodies over wronguns, and teach some helpful values along the way.
Little Red Riding Hood has survived in literature for at least a thousand years. Its origins can be traced back to several European folk tales from the 10th century, including an Italian version called 'La finta nonna' (The False Grandmother). It has inspired an array of interpretations for page and screen, including many in picturebook form. Below are three of our favourites.Little Red Riding Hood
by Anna Milbourne (words), Julia Sarda Portabella (illustrations) and Nicola Butler (design), published by Usborne
This is a hugely innovative delivery of a traditional retelling, brought to life through an extraordinary feat of paper engineering. From the front cover onwards, we can see through the story, with each cardboard page containing intricate cut-throughs to those that follow. Through the front cover, we can see a dark, thick forest as the journey begins. The books pace-setting words are matched perfectly with charming illustrations. With every turn, more of Little Red's near-three-dimensional world is revealed. Her red cape shines through the pages like a beacon, through the dark wood filled with rabbits, deer and squirrels. The big bad wolf is suitably creepy and sinister.
The book's unique selling points are accentuated by flaps and hidden turns, which add to the fun. Over the course of the book the reader can move through the forest, into grandma's house, and out again - in a way that is as close to animation as you can get in a picturebook. Illustrator Julia Sarda Portabella's beautiful pictures convey both a retro and Germanic feel, perhaps as a nod to the most famous version of this story - that of the Brothers Grimm in 1812. Little Red
by Bethan Woollvin, published by Two Hoots
The cover of this book sets a tone of subversion from the off. This isn't going to be a straightforward retelling. Black lines against a stark white backdrop, depicting a girl's fringe and side-eyes stare, are surrounded by a blood-red hood. The inside cover shows the girl, hands on hips, amidst a bleak forest - she is a Scandi-noir Little Red who is not in a mood to be messed with.
Asked to take some cake to her poorly grandma, she sets off, not looking too impressed by the prospect. The wolf, whose teeth literally fill the page, approaches her, and growls. We are told this "might have scared some little girls. But not this little girl". The wolf makes a plan, but so does Little Red.
We won't reveal the truly brilliant and shocking ending in this post. Let's just say that if I'd been drinking tea at the time of reading this book it might have been splurted across the room. It's no wonder this picturebook (Bethan Woollvin's debut) was chosen as one of The New York Times Best Illustrated Children's Books of 2016. Little Red and the Very Hungry Lion
by Alex T Smith, published by Scholastic
Alex T Smith applies his brilliantly irreverent style to a transposition of Little Red to the Savannah - with an amusing narrative amid fabulous splashes of sumptuous colour. Her ruby-red dress is juxtaposed with the rich pinks and oranges of the African plains and skies, and the hungry wolf's (or in this case, lion's) bronze mane.
When Auntie Rosie calls for help - she is covered in spots - Little Red sets off to see her - with a basketful of medicine and fresh doughnuts. We follow her all the way, around warthogs and atop elephants. When she stops for a rest under a shady tree, the lion makes his move and forms his "very clever plan" - humorously depicted in the form of what appears to be an all-too-hastily-doodled step-by-step guide.
Rosie arrives at her Auntie's house and on entering her bedroom immediately sees her - locked in the cupboard - with the lion tucked up in bed. She decides to teach him a lesson (several in fact) including hair braiding, dental hygiene and fashion. The lion finally has enough of playing the role of Auntie, and can stay in character no longer. Happily, a deal is struck, doughnuts are consumed, and the lion's interest in eating aunties and girls vanishes, as do Auntie Rosie's spots.
If you like these, and are looking for more Little Reds, try:Yummy
by Lucy Cousins - a compendium of classic folk and fairy tales depicted through the author's famous primary colour palette (including Little Red). Very Little Red Riding Hood
by Teresa Heapy - where the wolf is worn down by the energy and persistence of a "threenager" Little Red.
April 2017 ReviewsPosted by Max 21 Apr, 2017 08:00AM
Old MacDonald Heard a Parp by Olaf Falafel, published by Harper Collins
Toilet humour is probably the oldest form of comedy. Chaucer's medieval 'The Canterbury Tales' of 1400 is filled with jokes about bodily functions, while 'The Clouds', a 423BC play by the Ancient Greek writer Aristophanes finds the philosopher Socrates debating whether his friend's bowel movements are louder than thunder - complete with enthusiastic sound effects. According to PowerThesaurus.org there are 251 synonyms for "fart" - demonstrating this subject's enduring linguistic appeal.
A new entry to this cacophonous literary tradition is from comedian Olaf Falafel, in his absurdist take on the favourite children's song Old MacDonald Had a Farm. Here, an aurally attuned Old MacDonald "heard a parp" - and suspects his animals to be the culprits.
Accompanying each accused animal and their suspected gaseous emission are amusing instructions on how the reader should make each sound - with a "puck-er" here, and a "pop pop" there. Our 18 month old and her older sister took great delight in imitating this windbreaking wordery.
The one who dealt it is eventually revealed - not before an unexpected and mirth-making dream sequence involving unicorns, rainbows and Salvador Dali's melting clocks (from his painting 'The Persistence of Memory').
If you liked the smell of this, you would probably also enjoy:
March 2017 ReviewsPosted by Max 21 Mar, 2017 04:36PM
We've reached an exciting literary time in our house. Our younger daughter, who is now one and a half, has a blossoming vocabulary and is soaking up new words like a sponge.
Meanwhile our older daughter has just turned four and is beginning to understand how the shapes of letters on the page relate to the words we speak when we read books to her out loud.
We are now often able to read to them together, from the same book, each taking enjoyment at the sounds and shape of words on the page.
Board books play a vitally important role in early reading. While more recently our four year old has been mostly enjoying illustrated chapter books, she has taken a renewed interest in board books as she develops her tentative reading skills. Our one year old loves their tactile, compact structure, bold illustrations and frequently alliterative language.
Our two young children have a huge and wonderful choice of board books, and below are three new publications that have caught their eyes and ours.Can You Say It Too? Brrr! Brrr!
by Sebastian Braun, published by Nosy Crow
This cheerful and bright book is filled with Antarctic adventure, depicting bright sunny days and frosty winter mornings in the lands of ice and snow. Large, heavy duty flaps on each page help to answer the questions posed: "Who's behind that iceberg?"; "It's chilly penguin! Brrr! Brrr!"
An emphasis on repetition and fun sounds ("Splash! Splash!", "Yip! Yip!") makes it easy for the youngest readers to engage and enjoy. The final page has an innovative double flap, revealing not just a noisy wolf, but also her three cubs "Harooo! Harooo!".
Sebastian Braun's delightful illustrations of the natural world are full of fun and bright colours (we loved his Mayday Mouse, reviewed here
), and there are playful touches in the book's design too - with textured elements such as clouds and melting snow adding extra dimensions. Bedtime with Ted
by Sophy Henn, published by Bloomsbury
Ahh, bedtime routines - don't you just love them? Fingers crossed, we have a pretty decent system worked out now for our two, and reading is a key part of the process.
This charming boardbook tells us about Ted's bedtime adventures, from his perspective. Each page hears the plaintive cry of his adult calling "Bedtime Ted". But he tells us "Not yet! I'm far too busy".
Each time, we lift the flap to see why - "splish splosh splashing" with penguins in the bath, or "brush brush brushing" his teeth with a snappy crocodile. Finally, after having to do "a thing" and then "another thing", he's ready to settle down with a cuddly or four.
Sophy Henn's distinctive, retro-feel, matte palette (we've previously reviewed
her brilliant 'Where, Bear?') is a perfect choice for a bedtime board book. Baby's First Words
by Christiane Engel, published by Barefoot Books
This is a bright and cheery board book which is ideal for new speakers and new readers. It depicts a day in the life of a toddler girl, as she wakes up, gets dressed, goes out, has dinner and goes to bed. Each page is filled with wonderful details, each labeled in a clear, bold font.
Each page has its own tab along the edge, helping children see their progress through the book and with a clue as to what is to come. Alongside the scenes of her day, there are some lovely additional pages focused on emotions, clothing and animal sounds.
We enjoy trying to spot the cuddly woolly mammoth in every page, while the girl's two dads make this a great example of diversity in picturebooks.
Christiane Engel's illustrations are fabulous - we'll be seeking out more of her work - with a kaleidoscope of colours matched to easy on the eye layers of detail that make for lots of talking points.
March 2017 ReviewsPosted by Max 07 Mar, 2017 01:36PM
Ella Bella Ballerina and Swan Lake
by James Mathew, published by Orchard Books
For World Book Day, children across the country went to nursery and school dressed as their favourite book character, and took the related book in to read with their class. It's a fun way to bring stories to life, and an opportunity for parents to try their hand at costumes.
This year, when our now four-year-old daughter insisted on wearing her Elsa dress, we enthused her with the idea of being the Princess and the Pea - on the condition that she could take with her a single pea in a small plastic pot. She also chose the costume for our one year old - a Sophie la Giraffe tutu onesie - on the basis that her book character must be 'Ella Bella Ballerina and Swan Lake'.
This book is one of a series of Ella Bella stories based on real ballets, a perfect showcase of Author illustrator James Mayhew's love of art and classical music (read his biography here
). As well as the hugely popular 'Katie' series, James has written for the fabulous CBeebies series 'Melody' (where a girl listens to classical music and unlocks her vivid imagination).
Ella Bella Ballerina presents a version of the magical, majestic and at times quite dark Swan Lake. It starts on a rainy evening when Ella Bella is dropped at her ballet lesson. She joins in with Madame Rosa's class as they dance to the melody from Tchaikovsky's evocative score (a composition that is now more than 140 years old).
As the class ends, the other children filter out to change, and Ella finds herself alone on stage. Suddenly, the theatre transforms into another world, of watery reeds, ballrooms, the night sky and, first, a flock of swans who become white ballet princesses. Odette, the swan princess, leads Bella on an adventure to secure the true love of her prince and break the sorcerer's spell that is cast to commit her to her half-swan form forever.
The dreamy, washed illustrations are beautiful and full of movement, and reminiscent of the Madeline books. When we read the story, it is brought even more to life by playing a clip from the denouement of the score - which (like Melody) proved to be an ideal way to introduce our young children to classical music.