Once Upon An Atom

Once Upon an Atom
James Carter, illustrated by William Santiago
Little Tiger

James Carter successfully wears several hats: he’s a much loved, award-winning poet, a musician and a non-fiction writer; how he manages to fit in all his performances at schools and festivals too, is pretty amazing.

In this latest book, James fuses his poetry and non-fiction writing, this time to explore some of the really BIG questions that fascinate both children and adults alike; and they’re all of a scientific nature.

Starting with a mention of the Big Bang and tiny atoms, the poet wonders, ‘WHY do leaves turn red and gold? / WHY do fireworks explode. // WHAT are whizzes, bangs expansions? / They’re all CHEMICAL REACTIONS!’
That assertion certainly makes chemistry begin to sound exciting.

Next on the scientific agenda are electricity, followed by gravity,

both aspects of physics – for as we hear, ‘We live on one great universe / and PHYSICS tells us how that works.’

Evolution, medicine come next, followed by my favourite of the sciences – botany, all of which are aspects of BIOLOGY.

The final stanzas talk of the work of scientists, their experimenting and inventing, ending with the exciting thoughts: ‘Now WHO knows what / the FUTURE is? // Find out … / become a SCIENTIST!’ Now there’s a possibility.

On the last spread is one of James’ acrostics entitled It’s all a question of SCIENCE.

A fizzingly, zinging addition to James’ non-fiction poetry series, this one is a clever fusion of playful entertainment and STEM information. With each spread being embellished with William Santiago’s arresting, zippy art, the book becomes a STEAM title that is great to share in the classroom or at home.

It’s Rhyme Time with Big Green Crocodile and Seagull Seagull

Two exciting books that celebrate rhyme and encourage a love of same:

Big Green Crocodile
Jane Newberry, illustrated by Carolina Rabei
Otter-Barry Books

This collection of original play-rhymes for the very young comes complete with how to ‘act out’ instructions for adult readers aloud. Wearing my foundation stage teacher and advisory teacher for language hats, I know that it’s never too early to start sharing rhymes with little ones, first and foremost for the sheer pleasure they afford, but also for enjoyment of the inherent 3Rs (rhythm, rhyme and repetition) and here’s a book with sixteen new ones to enjoy.

Several of the rhymes feature aspects of the natural world – Five Buzzy Bees, a tree to tap, a Tickle Beetle, fishes, a Big Green Crocodile, while others are about things little ones adore hearing about (or will once you’ve read them a rhyme on the topic) such as monsters, a Wibble-Wobble Clown,

a Moon Rocket a dinosaur (Brontosaurus Ride), and sharing baking and sharing yummy ‘ICE-CREAM, COOKIES / AND CHOCOLATE CAKE!’ when The Queen Comes to Tea.

Whether your children are babies, soon to start reading at school, or somewhere in between, this is for you.

Caroline Rabei’s wonderful illustrations showing enthusiastic young child participants in all the action make this an even more delightful sharing experience for both children and adults.

So, jump up, shout for joy and move that body.

Seagull Seagull
James K. Baxter, illustrated by Kieran Rynhart
Gecko Press

Opening this book on the page opposite the contents, I read ‘Grasshopper green, / Grasshopper grey, / Why do you sit and fiddle all day? // Grasshopper grey, / Grasshopper Green. / Tell me of the wonderful things that you’ve seen.’
I know that poem I thought to myself and then realised why.
This is a new edition of New Zealand poet, James K. Baxter’s classic poetry – a selection of 20 poems from his book The Tree House, written for his class when he was a primary school teacher. The Tree House first published I think in the 1970s, is a book I had in my collection of poetry books at one time and his poems have been frequently anthologised by people such as myself.

Equally, I can recall reading Jack Frost to some of my classes way back in the 1980/90s. That’s the one that begins, ‘Look out, look out, / Jack Frost’s about! / He’ll nip your ears / And bite your snout!’ How well I remember those lines and my infants shouting it when the frost set in.

The more I read, the more excited I became: it was a real trip down memory lane to come upon Andy Dandy again, as well as meeting again The Old Owl as it sits on the branch of a gum tree telling listeners and readers, ‘There’s nobody here / But the moon and me:’ …
‘I’m as old as old, / And wise as wise, / And I see in the dark / With my great round eyes. // “So hurry and scurry,’ / The old owl said – / Pack up your toys / And get ready for bed.’
What wonderful images these words conjure up: and they surely have for Kieran Rynhart whose lovely illustrations grace the pages of this book.

I have no idea what happened to my copy of The Tree House but I shall most definitely enjoy sharing Seagull Seagull with children at every opportunity.

There’s a Crocodile in the House / The Magic of Mums

Celebrating two smashing new Otter-Barry Books compilations of performance poets writing:

There’s a Crocodile in the House
Paul Cookson, illustrated by Liz Million

It’s great to see another book by performance poet Paul Cookson and it’s full of zany offerings to delight both adult readers aloud and primary school readers. Lots of the poems are absolute musts for classroom audience participation.

Take the very first poem that gives the book its title; it simply bounces along and with children chanting each line after you, it becomes a double bounce every time.

Then what about The Toilet Seat Has Teeth! What fun to have a whole class of 6/7 year olds yelling ‘OW!’ and bouncing up off their seats whenever you read that line, ( nine times by my reckoning).

This one seemed even more hilarious when I read it because the book arrived on the same day we’d had our new Japanese toilet installed. Now it may not have teeth but it does have all kinds of other interesting features.

As does Paul’s giggle-inducing book for not only is there a croc. but there are also such creatures as The T Rex That Rocks, The Warty Hog and The Porky Pine;

not forgetting the riot-rousing Bottoms! – “Bottoms that are twitching / Bottoms that are itching / Bottoms that are slipping / Bottoms that are tipping / Wobble Bottoms / Jelly bottoms / Wriggle bottoms / Smelly bottoms.’. How such a plethora of bottoms wriggled their way into Paul’s hilarious collection is his only to know.

What this erstwhile infant teacher, reviewer knows though is that your class will be reduced to hysterics, not to say any KS1 or nursery teacher that shares it.

I wouldn’t mind betting that Liz Millions had a good giggle creating the smashing illustrations for this cracking book.

The Magic of Mums
Justin Coe, illustrated by Steve Wells

With Mother’s Day coming up on 22 March, this is the ideal time to grab a copy of this super compilation celebrating The Magic of Mums, another terrific read aloud, and I’m pretty sure young readers will find their own particular special mother figure lurking somewhere within its covers: and to make life easier, Justin has penned a poem (or two or even three) for every letter of the alphabet.

So if you think your mum is let’s say, an Anxious Mum, there ‘s a poem ready and waiting; there’s also Action Mum and Adoptive Mum representing A.

Everyone knows how hard their mum works so there’s a One-Hundred- miles-an-Hour Mother as well as this special tribute to a Diamond Mum …

For me the Dad-Mum is also a true diamond: ‘ I know I do not have your mother’s magic. / I just cook the recipes / that keep her in our memories / and try to keep the house / as she would have it. // And because your mum / could never bear / to see you sad, / I do my best to love you / twice as much / for both of us / be both / your mum and dad.’

Not all the mums featured are of the human kind however; there’s Earth Mother, Queen-Bee Mum and the enormously moving Tree Mum too.

Steve Wells captures the spirit of every mum he’s illustrated (and that’s most of them) in his line drawings.

Altogether a super celebration of motherhood in all its shapes and forms for individual reading, or even better, reading aloud to that certain awesome mum, or perhaps Two Mums, for as a little girl narrator of Justin’s poem of that name says, ‘ I have two mums to love me / so there’s two mums I love.’

Poems Aloud

Poems Aloud
Joseph Coelho, illustrated by Daniel Gray-Barnett
Wide Eyed Editions

Joseph Coelho is a performance poet so it’s no surprise that the nineteen poems in this book are first and foremost, intended to be read aloud or performed. Through so doing children can have lots of fun and discover the pure pleasure of spoken words.

There are poems for a range of moods and for each one, Joseph provides a helpful introductory line or so about reading it out loud.

There are some short playful alliterative Tongue Twisters to start with, including the sibilant The Slime Takeover that children will definitely delight in:
‘Slipping, shimmering, stinking slime, / sloppy cerise or shades of scarlet sublime. / It sticks and sucks and spits and spools, snaking slime slumping several school walls./ The slime swells and stretches, and starts to sprout, … ‘

They’ll also relish The Chilly Chilli with its homophones. Here’s the second verse telling how it feels since being ‘shipped to store’:
‘A little chilly chilli / feeling cold and in a knot. / Not a happy, chilly chilli. / In fact, this chilli feels quite ill / like it’s caught the flu. / It flew all this way / packed in a plane / to add heat to otherwise plain food.’
It sounds as though the poet had as much fun composing this as youngsters will when they read it, emphasising the bold words as he suggests.

As I write today the following are my favourites  (although they might well be different on another day): This Bear with its figurative language such as is used in the opening verse:
‘This lumbering bear is old / This lumbering bumbling bear / has shuffled over rugged imagined mountains. / Urged his bulk, slow and strong. / Slow as geography. / Strong as tree growth / through the forests of his mind.’
What a wonderful picture that paints in the reader’s mind even without the splendid illustration.

I love too the short Animals offerings that include Lion: ‘I am meat-licker, / bone-cruncher, / big–meower. / I cat walk with pride. / My mane is a hairdo of envy. / My roar is a rumble of mountains. / My claws, a savannah of pain.‘ Superb!

Next is the fantastically fanciful Something Wondrous, the first line of which urges:
‘Peer from your window in the deep of night.’ You might spy these, for its second verse goes thus:
‘A unicorn nibbles the gold leaf tree, / hobgoblins fist-fight in every flower. Mermaids flop from a luminescing sea. / Earth giants show-off their hidden powers.’ Joseph’s  power with poem creating is certainly not hidden and I really like the use of silhouettes in Daniel Grey-Barnett’s illustration.

The final one of today’s favourites conjures up a place whose sights, sounds and smells I’m familiar with. Even if you’ve never been On the Streets of New Delhi this poem will make readers feel that they’re experiencing the place. Here’s how it begins:
‘On the streets of New Delhi / a small brown dog yawns. / The morning light is golden / on the new streets of barking New Delhi.’
It concludes, thanks to the cumulative nature of the last line of each verse: ‘on the new streets of barking, selling, thrumming, chuckling New Delhi.’
Get hold of this cracking book to discover what causes the thrumming and chuckling referred to. Or you could cheat and look carefully at the action-capturing illustration  below;

but buy the book anyway – it’s a smasher!

The Shortest Day

The Shortest Day
Susan Cooper and Carson Ellis
Walker Books

In many cultures light is celebrated as a symbol of continuing life and so it is here.

Many years ago Susan Cooper wrote a poem to perform in recognition of the winter solstice, telling how people used to celebrate the changing year by ‘singing, dancing, / To drive the dark away.’ Candles were lit and homes festooned with evergreens, fires burned all through the night ‘to keep the year alive.’ …

Until ‘the new year’s sunshine blazed awake.’

All this is shown in Carson Ellis’ gorgeous gouache paintings for this festive picture book.

We then move forward in time to see modern people with arms outstretched embracing the rising sun, before moving indoors where their home is decorated with a Christmas tree, an evergreen wreath and a mantelpiece on which stand a menorah and holly; carols are sung and children dance.

Both words and pictures powerfully evoke the changing season of then and now, presenting a superb alternative to the often trashy glitz and sparkle that is part and parcel of the festive season in a 21st century location such as the UK.

(There’s a final author’s note wherein Susan Cooper fills in the background to her poem, after which the poem – originally written for the theatre – is printed again.)

Shakespeare For Every Day of the Year

Shakespeare For Every Day of the Year
edited by Allie Esiri
Macmillan

As with Esiri’s A Poem for Every Day of the Year, and A Poem for Every Night of the Year, this weighty, beautifully produced book is, despite its title, one to get lost in; I certainly did. Having said that it could equally be used daily, or as a book to dip in and out of whenever the reader felt like it. Shakespeare after all, had a wonderful way of creating a whole story in a single sonnet or a few brief couplets.

Covering the sonnets, extracts from the 37 plays and sections of longer poems, all of which are given an introductory paragraph relevant to the particular time of year. For instance, one of my favourite sonnets (116) for November 28th tells of the episcopal register at Worcester containing a note of the bard’s marriage in 1582. As a result not only do we get Shakespeare’s words – the familiar and well-loved, alongside the lesser known – but also insights into his life and times: the light and the dark no less.

Many of us will have learned chunks of Shakespeare by heart often at school, and I found myself going to the Index of Works and looking up first lines and turning to those first; some with voices like that of Judi Dench sounding in my ear.

No matter how you read it or where, school classroom, home or with a group gathered elsewhere, this is an enormously exciting, enriching compilation (love the endpapers) that one hopes will make Shakespeare accessible to a very wide audience.

What an awesome present Shakespeare Every Day of the Year would make at any time.

Mother Goose of Pudding Tale

Mother Goose of Pudding Lane
Chris Raschka and Vladimir Radunsky
Walker Books

How many young children know nursery rhymes in this day and age? During my time as a foundation stage teacher I discovered that when they start school, comparatively few, and of those who did the majority knew only Baa Baa Black Sheep and the first verse of Jack and Jill; yet nursery rhymes are the bedrock of literary language and help in the development of an ear for language rhythms, rhymes and much more. In my early days of teaching reading I used picture book nursery rhymes with beginning readers who soon began to match what they had in their heads with the words printed on the page.

This book, subtitled ‘A small tall tale’ explores in playful fashion possible backstories about Mother Goose and her origins with Raschka’s poetic text suggestion that one Elizabeth Foster who married Isaac Goose was the true Mother Goose persona. He goes on to provide a biographical account of this woman from the time of her courtship, her wedding and raising of a family,

(fourteen children in all and all kinds of animals) weaving into the narrative thematically organised Mother Goose rhymes, and concluding thus: ‘Elizabeth Goose, / As / Mother Goose, / Can still be heard today.’ Would that it were so, and long may her rhymes continue.

Most spreads begin with Raschka’s own words

which are followed by a tradition Mother Goose rhyme that is illustrated with Vladimir Radunsky’s gorgeous, gouache, almost hypnagogic images, while at times there are also childlike pencil scribbles scattered on the page.

Wonderfully playful and silly, its great to read aloud or to read along with and provides a trip down memory lane for adults sharing the book with youngsters.