The Garden of Inside-Outside

The Garden of Inside-Outside
Chiara Mezzalama and Régis Lejonc (trans. Sarah Ardizzone)
Book Island

Inspired by the author’s own childhood experience (in 1980 her father was appointed Italian ambassador to Tehran when Iran was at war with Iraq), this is an absolutely wonderful graphic novel style presentation with suberb illustrations by Régis Lejonc.

Chiara and her brother spent their days within a garden of an ambassadorial residence surrounded by high walls. Inside this garden with its fountains, pomegranate trees, a pond with an ancient carp, and a wealth of hiding places they were safe from the violent war that raged Outside.

One day while playing in their garden the children spy a young boy peering through the iron gate. He takes a risk and climbs over the wall. Chiara’s brother and their dog run away but despite having no language in common, Chiara and the boy whose name is Massoud, strike up a friendship.

Much alarmed, Chiara’s brother wants her to inform their parents but she keeps quiet and her new friend becomes ‘ the Persian prince of Outside-Inside’ while Chiara is a lion-taming princess; their garden his sanctuary.

But when Chiara tries to mix inside and outside the story suddenly turns and their friendship comes under a threat of her own making, her friendly gesture seemingly spurned; or is it?

Powerfully written and crafted with consummate skill, (this is a superb translation by Sarah Ardizzone), we readers really feel as though we’re standing behind Chiara’s head as she tells her enormously thought-provoking story. The illustrations truly do evoke the tranquilly of the inside sanctuary and the dark horrors and fears of the war as it rages in the city outside.

I’ve never seen anything quite like this before: what a wonderful demonstration that friendships truly can transcend boundaries and walls against all the odds.

The Bird Within Me

The Bird Within Me
Sara Lundberg
Book Island

In this movingly told, inspirational book, based on the paintings, letters and diaries of Swedish artist Berta Hansson, we learn what it would have been like to grow up with her mother always sick in bed with TB and slowly dying, and an enormously hard-working father who calls your desire to express yourself imaginatively through art and beauty ‘ridiculous’.

That was life for Berta whose uncle (with whom she sometimes stayed when her mum was especially sick) managed to combine being a farmer with creating wonderful pictures, and occasionally allowed his niece to paint too.

Berta’s father wanted his daughter to follow his ideas – fit in, be a housewife – but she yearned to break free to live her own life, follow her desired creative path.’To fit in, you have to keep your desires secret. Be silent. And not really show who you are.’

‘When I grow up I’m going to be an artist. Like Michelangelo. But I don’t say that aloud. Because it isn’t a real job. Not something you can be. Especially not of you are a girl.’

Just when it seems her mother is slightly better, she is taken very sick again and dies.

Then not long after, the doctor, an art lover who regularly examines the rest of the family, asks Berta what she plans to do after leaving school. She longs to tell him of her dream but doesn’t, keeping it bottled up inside.

Things get too much and after just a short while, something snaps inside Berta as she stands at the stove cooking pea soup on a wooden stove. She lets it burn

and that precipitates a change in her father and for Berta whose journey might well have gone in a completely dead-end direction.

So beautifully illustrated and affectingly told, this is a wonderful testament to the power of the imagination, Berta’s and that of all who have creative instincts.

The Golden Cage

The Golden Cage
Anna Castagnoli and Carll Cneut
Book Island

Dark, disturbing and enigmatic are the words that immediately sprang to mind after I read this fairy tale from Europe, which is a collaboration between French-Italian author, Anna Castagnolii and the Belgian illustrator of Witchfairy, Carll Cneut.

It tells of the Emperor’s daughter, an incredibly indulged girl who, despite having everything she desires, is not happy.

Her particular penchant is for birds of which she has a vast number but her greed drives her to want still more. Her demands become increasingly hard to meet: ‘a bird with glass wings!’ … ‘a bird that spurts water like a fountain’ …

Many, many servants lose their heads as they try in vain to fulfil her outrageous requests

till finally with her newest cage, a golden one, yet to be filled, Valentina has a dream.

In this dream she meets a talking bird

and knows that this is what she must have to complete her collection.

Off go the servants to search but again their offerings do not fit the bill and CHOP! off come their heads. It’s conversation, not mimicry she desires in her parrot.

Time passes, the palace gradually becomes a ruin and the cage remains empty.

Then one day a young servant boy, new to Valentina with ‘eyes as cunning as arrows’ approaches her eliciting a promise from her in exchange for the bird she yearns for.

Rather than a bird, the boy returns months later with an egg, telling her that from it will hatch a talking bird.

Happy, at last, the princess waits and waits and …

But this isn’t a happily ever after ending and readers must decide for themselves the finale to this multi-layered story, as indeed they must put their own interpretation on the whole.

Caril Cneut’s illustrations – sumptuous paintings and drawings that sometimes cover an entire spread, and the child-like drawing epitomising all that Valentina yearns for, are totally arresting. The former are rich in detail, truly snaring the attention but so does the latter, which in its own way also says so much.

Not a book for young children but it’s brimming over with potential if offered to older audiences including students of literature and art.

Mum’s Jumper

Mum’s Jumper
Jayde Perkin
Book Island

This is a book that explores the nature of grief.

A mother dies but for the child narrator and her dad, life must go on.
Her mother’s absence feels like a dark cloud that is always hovering close by, and makes concentration at school difficult. No matter how kind other people are, the overwhelming feeling is of being alone, angry even, at times.

Her father explains that the constant ache she feels is the way grief engulfs a person who has lost someone very dear to them; he too feels it.

While sorting out her mother’s belongings the girl comes upon a much-loved jumper. Along with her father’s words of solace, it’s adopting that snuggly warm garment that helps her begin to find a way through those dark days.

Grief, Dad says, ‘is like Mum’s jumper. The jumper stays the same size, but I will eventually grow into it.’

After some time, her world does enlarge around her grief and she feels able to put her treasured possession out of sight, safe in the knowledge that it, like her mother, will always be there; for she’s a part of everything and everywhere, and most important she’s there inside forever.

Grief is a very personal thing and Jayde Perkins’ illustrations for this book are heartfelt. (Her own mother died of cancer) and here she puts into her art (and words) some of the feelings that a young grieving child might have.

I’d like to see this ultimately uplifting book in every primary classroom; and I’d definitely offer it to anybody who has, or knows, a young child coping with the loss of a parent or close family member.

Emmett and Caleb

Emmett and Caleb
Karen Hottois and Delphine Renon
Book Island

Emmett and Caleb are neighbours and good friends. Despite having totally different morning rituals, they manage to spend much of their time together going for walks and enjoying nature.

Come summer late riser Caleb is unusually, awake early and he wants to give his pal a present to celebrate their long-standing friendship. Having pondered hard, he decides to write Emmett a poem: ‘Emmett, you look handsome in your hat and you’re not fat.’ and give it to him after they’ve consumed their meal. This however, doesn’t quite go as well as he hopes: Emmett focuses on the superficial errors rather than the content of the message and so finds Caleb’s effort funny, which upsets the writer who snatches back his work, taking drastic action.

Emmett ponders, gently admonishes himself and decides to make recompense. By sunset the two are reconciled

Autumn brings forest walks, damp earth and the harvesting of nature’s bounties – a truly golden time for the pair.

Then in the winter it’s time to celebrate Caleb’s birthday with a party, presents, a special cake and dancing;

it even snows as midnight strikes.

This celebration of friendship, life’s simple pleasures and the gifts of nature, translated from the author’s original French by Sarah Ardizzone, is enchanting. In her illustrations, Delphine Renon beautifully captures the warmth between the two characters as well as the inherent beauty of each season.

A quirky delight to read aloud or equally, a lovely book for those just taking off as independent readers.

Little Wise Wolf

Little Wise Wolf
Gijs van der Hammen and Hanneke Siemensma
Book Island

Little Wolf is renowned for his wisdom and it makes him proud. He’s so busy studying that he has no time to answer the questions of others.

One day he receives a visitor: it’s the king’s crow bearing a message from his highness. The king is ill and believes that only Wise Wolf can make him better.

Reluctantly he agrees setting out next morning on his bicycle. The other animals are concerned about the distance Little Wolf must travel.

The journey is very long and the terrain hilly. Little Wolf abandons his bike and watched by several pairs of eyes, continues on foot.

Come nightfall he’s exhausted, cold and very hungry; but even worse, he’s lost. On the point of despair he notices a light in the distance. It’s coming from the campfire outside a tent and bubbling away is a pot of soup.

Sated, Little Wolf falls fast asleep.

Next morning another surprise awaits: it’s the other animals. They encourage Little Wolf to continue alone and eventually, totally worn out, he reaches the castle gate and after some persuasion, enters the king’s bedchamber.

A single spoonful of Little Wise Wolf’s herbal medicine is all that’s required to cure the patient.

The grateful king makes him a tempting offer but his decision to turn it down and return to his friends, whom he acknowledges have much to teach him, shows that Little Wolf now truly does deserve to be called wise.

Wise words too from the author: for a bibliophile it is all too easy to become engrossed in books and decide one is too busy for other things and that spoke to me; but what I enjoyed particularly was Hanneke Siemensma’s art.

Using a largely muted colour palette, she portrays the red-booted lupine’s journey to real wisdom in a series of wonderful spreads, each of which offers details to amuse and delight. In addition to the standout red wellies that draw the eye immediately, there is a white dotted line tracking the path Little Wolf takes. Peer into the depths of each scene and you’ll discover much more.

What Does the Crocodile Say?

What Does the Crocodile Say?
Eva Montanari
Book Island

A really smashing ‘starting nursery’ book is this one from author/illustrator, Eva Montanari starring a little crocodile on his very first day at nursery.

Mama wakes him, baths him, dresses him; they eat breakfast together and off they go.

At the door, teacher elephant greets parent and son

and they enter the noisy room where other animals are playing. Little croc. is very reluctant to bid his mum farewell.

Then comes story time

followed by a music session and then it’s time for lunch and thereafter a nap.

When the little ones are awake their teacher entertains them with bubble blowing and after the final POP comes a KNOCK KNOCK on the door.
Mama has arrived to collect little croc who couldn’t be happier to see her. MWAH MWAH …

And will he return tomorrow? It certainly looks that way.

Short and sweet assuredly: I can almost hear adult ‘AWW’s of empathy as they share this one and as for soon-to-start nursery little ones, they’ll most certainly enjoy joining in with the cacophonous sequence of sounds -accompanying the gorgeous illustrations as we follow the little reptile through his day.

An absolute winner this.

Up the Mountain

Up the Mountain
Marianne Dubuc
Book Island

Old Mrs Badger is a kindly soul residing at the foot of a small mountain. She loves to walk and does so every Sunday, climbing up to the top of the mountain and sometimes stopping en route collect things such as mushrooms for a friend

or to help one in need.
One Sunday she comes upon a little cat eager to accompany her on her journey though he lacks the confidence. Fortunately Mrs Badger knows just the thing to make the challenge easier for Leo

and so the two continue climbing together.

Her companion is inquisitive and quick to learn; Mrs Badger encouraging, wise. and generous with her wisdom.

Finally they reach their destination.

There follow many Sundays when the two friends climb together and gradually week by week, month by month Mrs Badger starts to grow weary on their walks and now it’s erstwhile mentee Leo’s turn to take on the mentoring role.
Then comes a day when Mrs Badger doesn’t feel strong enough for an uphill hike so Leo heads off alone. And so it continues with the cat bringing back treasures to share with Mrs Badger.
Eventually the mountain has become Leo’s but then one day that too changes: now Leo has a new friend with whom to share all that natural beauty.

Marianne Dubuc’s moving cyclical tale has a quiet beauty that holds readers in its thrall throughout, and demonstrates so touchingly the power of intergenerational friendships. Her scenes, both intimate and expansive, are superbly detailed and beautifully textured, and her colour palette spot on for the rural setting.

Witchfairy

Witchfairy
Brigitte Minne and Carll Cneut
Book Island

Another beauty from Island Books and it’s a picture book wherein the author upturns more than one story norm as you’ll come to know if you get your hands on this innovative tale.

Rosemary is a young fairy, a deliciously divergent one who’d much prefer a pair of roller skates to the ‘stupid magic wand’ birthday present given to her by her mum.

In fact, tired of her clean, neat, sweet, and exceedingly dull life as a fairy, she’d far rather be a witch, Rosemary decides.

Her mother of course, is completely horrified, the other fairies try to dissuade her, but the girl is having none of it: she’s a child who knows her own mind and so she packs her bags and leaves.

Life in the witches’ wood suits Rosemary perfectly; she constructs herself a treehouse and a boat,

and eats nuts and berries. She even gets to try out roller skating thanks to the kindness of one of the other witches.
Seemingly she can teach the other witches a few tricks too.
But exciting as this new life of hers might be, Rosemary eventually realises that she’s made her mother sad by sticking with her decision to leave home.

Could there perhaps be a way she can bridge both worlds; perhaps being a ‘witchfairy’ is the solution …

Delectably dark and with an underlying message about holding fast to what you want to be or do – says someone who has done just that, it warms your heart.  Let determination carry you through, however tough the odds.
Here’s a superb, exquisitely illustrated picture book, which demonstrates just that.

I’ve signed the charter  

One House for All

One House for All
Inese Zandere and Juris Petraškevičs
Book Island

A parcel from Book Island publishers is always exciting; their books exude quality and originality. It’s certainly so in this unusual take on the extended family.

Three good friends, Raven, Crayfish and Horse meet together and hold a discussion. Each wants to get married and have a family, but their friendship is so strong that a way must be found to preserve it. What can they do to remain close?

The friends decide to build a wonderful new home where they can live together; but a home that encompasses all their needs is no easy matter.

Three sketches are drawn up in turn with the three animals each clearly outlining his perfect family home.

It will come as no surprise when I say that the three homes are totally different.

Surely this isn’t to be the end of a beautiful friendship or a calling off of the marriages …

The power of the story lies in the simplicity of its telling: that, and the absolutely superb, vibrant illustrations make for a strikingly beautiful book.

Let difference, respect and friendship thrive, no matter how, no matter what.
Here’s a book that could help all three flourish.

Mr Postmouse Goes on Holiday / Travel Activity Book

Mr Postmouse Goes on Holiday
Marianne Dubuc
Book Island
Mr Postmouse is back – or rather, he isn’t: he’s off on a holiday trip with his family and like many of us, is taking some work to finish. First stop is the forest where they set up camp, oh! and there just happens to be a parcel to drop off for forest resident, Aunt Maisy.

The mice then head to the seaside for some relaxation before boarding a cruise ship, which stops off at a volcanic island for another parcel delivery and for Pipsqueak, provides an opportunity to toast some marshmallows – yummy!

A camel ride in the desert, a jungle safari, a hasty, town stopover, a mountain sortie, a polar stop-off, an air-balloon flight all follow; and as you might expect, Mr P. has parcels to drop off at all the locations.

Eventually though, the globe trotting is over and the mouse family return home where unsurprisingly there’s a whole pile of letters needing to be delivered by Mr Postmouse.
This sequel is every bit as full of delicious details as Here Comes Mr Postmouse. It’s hard to show these on photos; but for instance, the forest scene has elements of a Hansel and Gretel type story being acted out by various characters. A mouse is picking up the pebbles that a small boy is using to leave a trail and hand-in-hand, two small children are heading towards a gingerbread house, there are boy scout bunnies and a whole host of minibeasts –

one toasting what looks like a sausage, over a bonfire.
If you share this with a group of youngsters – and I hope you will, as it offers so much to discuss, then ensure you build in lots of time to peruse each spread.

No matter where your holiday destination is, this might well be a worthwhile book to take along:

Travel Activity Book
illustrated by Charlie Brandon-King
Button Books
Starting with, on the inside front cover, a host of ideas for games to play on the journey, youngsters are offered a wealth of removable sheets of things to do from ‘Get Packed’ with its empty case, ticket and blank passport waiting to be filled; airport related activities, to a spot the clouds page, followed by a world map page. This just covers the first half dozen pages. There follow: all kinds of puzzles, problems to solve, drawing, writing and other creative activities and more.
No matter if you’re travelling to a jungly location or island far away, or somewhere much closer to home, there should be something to keep children from around 4 to 10 involved.

I’ve signed the charter 

It’s My Pond / Looking for Lord Ganesh


It’s My Pond
Claire Garralon, translated by Sarah Ardizzone
Book Island
There is a pond and a duck – a yellow one that comes upon same. “Wow, nice pond – it’s my pond!” it declares and plunges in. Bliss. Enter stage right another duck, white this time. It too wants the pond. Its “Why don’t we split it in two?” suggestion seems ideal. Another duck appears, a red one …

but that’s no problem: divide the pond three ways. And so it goes on: more and more ducks of all colours of the rainbow appear one by one, and the pond is split into ‘tiny bits and pieces.’ Then … consternation on the part of the in-the-pond ducks … none of them, it transpires, is actually having any fun at all.
“We don’t swim” says green duck. “We just stay put.” “We’re bored, “ says pink duck “and we can’t move!
Leave it to black duck though: it has the perfect solution.

But then what should happen along but a huge hippo: uh-oh!
Wonderful wit on the part of the book’s creator is evident in both words and pictures. Young listeners will have a good laugh over the lovely lessons on negotiating and sharing; and they’ll delight in the notion of what look like the kind of ducks they’ve seen at the fair or school fete being characters in a picture book.

Looking for Lord Ganesh
Mahtab Narsimhan and Sonja Wimmer
Lantana Publishing
I have a fairly large collection of Ganesha images both 3D and 2D so was more than a little amused by the title of this book. A friend asked me the other day, ’Why do you collect them?’ My response that Ganesha is the remover of obstacles, was all that was needed. Herein it’s Anika’s grandmother who had always told her to ask ‘Lord Ganesh’ for help when the girl is anxious over something. Anika has recently emigrated with her family and now is missing her home city Mumbai greatly. However she has made a friend, Hadiya and now has a dilemma.

Anika has the opportunity to join a soccer team but without her new friend, so, she borrows her mum’s tablet and e-mails the god of wisdom asking for advice.
What happens thereafter involves a whole lot of soul searching on Anika’s part, a wise choice (without the help of a response to her mail) and ultimately, an outcome that works for all would-be players, every one of them.

Sonja Wimmer’s vibrant, richly patterned illustrations convey beautifully, both Anika’s and her friend’s thoughts and emotions in this touchingly different story about friendship, inclusiveness, finding your feet in a new environment and discovering your own inner strength to hold fast to what you believe to be right. It offers an excellent starting point for discussion and explorations of a cultural and/or, religious nature.

I’ve signed the charter  

Virginia Wolf

Virginia Wolf
Kyo Maclear and Isabelle Arsenault
Book Island
Author, Kyo Maclear (The Listzs) and Isabelle Arsenhault, illustrator (Cloth Lullaby) have together invented an episode from the youth of Virginia Wolf, narrated by her sister Vanessa when the former was overcome by depression: ‘She made wolf sounds and did strange things … ‘ Unsurprisingly, her actions affected the entire household –

‘She was a very bossy wolf. The whole house sank. Up became down. Bright became dim. Glad became gloom.’
Vanessa is a very understanding and supportive sister and does her upmost to cheer up her sibling. Eventually she responds to Virginia’s wish to fly to a perfect place … with “ABSOLUTELY NO DOLDRUMS”, a place called Bloomsberry, by creating, as Virginia sleeps …

a glorious ‘Bloomsberry’ garden.
This has the effect of lifting the gloom that has engulfed her sister– for the time being at least.

Strong emotions are part and parcel of childhood but comparatively few children go on to develop the dark melancholic, depressive feelings that would frequently engulf Virginia in her adult life. Not everyone, however hard they try will be able to help a depressed family member, but this is no detraction from what is undoubtedly a beautiful picture book.
Arsenault’s eloquent illustrations capture superbly the whole gamut of emotions of Maclear’s text: the graceful beauty of the pictures Vanessa creates would surely bring solace to almost anyone. The use of a hand-lettered text that sometimes almost explodes off the page, further adds to the impact of what is an immensely powerful and intensely personal tale of love and hope.
This is a book to share and discuss with older children (from around ten, and into early secondary school). I hope teachers have the insightfulness and perhaps courage to do so: its potential is rich.

I’ve signed the charter 

The Building Boy / Here Comes Mr Postman

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The Building Boy
Ross Montgomery and David Lichfield
Faber Children’s Books
This is a powerfully moving story at the heart of which lies the relationship between a boy and his Grandma who had once been an award-winning architect. Before bedtime in the house they shared, the two would snuggle together and Grandma would show her grandson photographs of buildings she’d designed.

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That was all in the past but now, she had plans for a wonderful new house she’d build with his help – a home the two would share.
Grandma, all the while is growing ever more frail and one day when he returns home, the boy finds she has died. The lad is overcome with grief.
Such is his love for his gran however, the boy is driven to carry on building. He works on a huge robotic-looking structure somewhat akin to The Iron Woman,

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a seeming reincarnation of his Gran; and she has plans … plans for an amazing journey the two will undertake together …

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Where that journey ultimately leads is to a deeply affecting finale – a place wherein the spirit of his beloved Grandma will forever reside …

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David Lichfield, who demonstrated his artistic brilliance in The Bear and the Piano imbues this enigmatic tale of love, loss and finding your calling with a sense of awe and wonder. His use of dark and light transports readers to that dreamlike place where anything is possible and the unbelievable becomes believable …

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What an inspired partnering of author/artist this was and the result is a book that will linger long in the mind.

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Here Comes the Postman
Marianne Dubuc
Book Island
It’s Monday morning and with cart loaded, Mr Postmouse sets off on his rounds. We join him as he delivers letters and parcels to all manner of unlikely animal recipients. The story itself is a straightforward description of the various stopping places but the illustrations are absolutely crammed with quirky details as we look into each home visited. It’s no easy round for Mr P has to scale heights …

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and dive deep …

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to complete his round and every stop provides readers an opportunity to peep inside the huge variety of residences and see for instance Dad Rabbit busy preparing a meal, a Crocodile languishing in the bath and another enjoying a book (and a nibble),and some bats – errr – dangling.
After all the hard work, there’s one package left in Mr Postmouse’s cart and it’s a very special delivery he has to make – to his small son, Pipsqueak whose birthday it is.
This is definitely a book to share and to pore over: I can see a fair bit of time being spent over each and every location Mr P delivers to. Terrific fun.

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Fox & Goldfish

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Fox & Goldfish
Nils Pieters
Book Island
Children’s books that tackle a subject such as bereavement are hard to get right: this one does it beautifully, relying largely on visuals with just a minimum of words. Be warned though: the impact of this gorgeous book is enormous; you’ll need a box of tissues at the ready when you read it.
It centres around two friends one largish, one very small. Fox realises that his much-loved pal, Goldfish isn’t long for this world and he embarks on a mission to ensure they have some unforgettable experiences, together in what short time remains.
The tenor of the whole thing is upbeat, indeed joyful almost the whole way through as the two travel the world together seeing amazing sights …

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scaling heights …

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exploring jungles and experiencing natural wonders …

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with most of the painted landscapes radiating warmth and happiness through the vibrant colours Pieters has chosen. Only the jungle looks dark and gloomy …

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foreshadowing perhaps the inevitable finale: inevitable yes but nevertheless a real tear-jerker, that resonates long after the book has been set aside.
This deserves a wide audience; it’s one for the family bookshelf and a must for early years settings and primary schools; I cannot recommend it too highly.

Everyone has to deal with the death of a loved one at some time but happily not every one has to deal with a parent or other family member who has kidney failure.
Here is a little book written about a family doing just that: this is not a review, rather I’m flagging up that it’s available:

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H is for Haemodialysis
Anita & Simon Howell, illustrated by Sue Roche
Dad, Simon has end-stage kidney failure and the authors an ex-nurse and a doctor, Anita and Simon Howell himself, show how this affects a whole family. It’s narrated by 8 year old Lucy, who has a younger brother, Jack a mum, Ruth and dad, Douglas. It’s Lucy’s dad who has kidney problems and needs haemodialysis and herein Lucy shares with readers what this means – why her dad’s arm “buzzes’ and why sometimes, ‘he wears just one glove’.

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Now while this straightforward unpretentious book has no claims to be a literary work, it could be just the thing for a family in a similar situation. The tenor is light and medical terms used are explained at the back of the book.
I was asked to donate my copy to my local doctor’s surgery and I will do just that.
More about the authors on their Facebook page

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