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.


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