Witch In Training

Witch in Training
Michelle Robinson and Briony May-Smith
Walker Books

Following their Tooth Fairy in Training, Michelle and Briony present another trainee this time in the form of a little witch.

We meet the young narrator as the final preparations for her training are, with her mum’s help, being made. Off they zoom on broomsticks to obtain all that’s necessary for her very first potion, Magic Stew.

First come the sky ingredients,

after which it’s down to Monster Town for wood-related supplies.

Next stop is a tomb for further slightly gruesome requirements, but the list still isn’t all ticked off: the final visit is a sub-aquatic rendezvous.

Then, full of excitement back home young Betty, hands duly washed, starts brewing with a wave of her wand, some magic words and . …

Uh- oh! in goes an additional ingredient that was not on that list and whoops! What has become of kitten, Pumpkin Patch?

Can Betty brew another potion and save the day? (or rather the night) … Well maybe – or almost …

Told in Michelle’s magical rhyming text and Briony’s wonderful scenes of moonlit ingredient gathering and spelling, create their own brand of enchantment that youngsters will delight in becoming a part of when the book is shared.

Perfect for a run-up to Halloween story time, or indeed, any other time.

Margaret’s Unicorn

Margaret’s Unicorn
Briony May Smith
Walker Books

Children seem to love unicorns and stories about these mythical creatures. I have no doubt they will love this gentle one of Briony’s with its atmospheric setting; it definitely stands out from the crowd.

Margaret and her parents have moved to a distant cottage in the mountains to be near Grandma. To the child, this house feels strange and unfriendly so her parents send her out to explore while they organise things inside. Don’t go beyond the big stone, they warn.

As Margaret walks she suddenly notices what at first glance seems like mist over the sea but then she realises it’s unicorns leaping across the skyline, only to vanish almost immediately. 

On her way back she comes upon a baby unicorn tangled in the weeds presumably left behind by the others. Having freed the little creature, she carries it back home.

With her grandma’s help, the girl tends the little unicorn, buying it flowers to eat and making a nest in Margaret’s new room. That night she and her father don wellies and go to collect some of the “water touched by moonlight” her gran had said it would drink. And so it does, making its horn glow with magic in the dark.

Over the changing seasons Margaret nurtures her little unicorn while at the same time gradually thinking less about her old home. ‘When a unicorn is your friend, you wish spring would stay far away.’ she tells readers but inevitably come it does and with it the other unicorns, among which is her unicorn’s mother. It’s time to bid a sad farewell to her friend 

and then the unicorns depart.

By the following spring Margaret has made some new friends and feels settled in this beautiful environment; but will she ever see her unicorn friend again?

Yes there’s magic in this lyrical tale but never of the sparkly sort; rather it has an earthiness fed by the landscapes and the seasonal changes all around, so beautifully captured in the illustrations, that and the love.

Chicken Come Home!

Chicken Come Home!
Polly Faber and Briony May Smith
Pavilion

Dolly is a free range chicken who likes to tease her owner and best friend by laying her egg somewhere different every day.

One morning she discovers a new place that seems very comfortable although rather dark and strange; but then all of a sudden she finds that her roosting spot is on the move.

However, she’s not keen to see the world from so great a height – it’s her boy she wants – so instead, she opens her wings and down she plummets, crashing through the trees and ending up in a fast flowing river – ideal for ducks but certainly not for Dolly.

Having managed to haul herself out onto dry land, she’s faced first with a snorting cow and then a noisy, dangerous road to get across.

Meanwhile on his way home from school, Dolly’s owner suddenly hears a lot of beeping as the bus he’s travelling home from school on is held up by something in the middle of the road … What could it be?

Readers share a bird’s eye view of Dolly’s unexpected journey in Briony’s superb visuals that are both wonderfully detailed and the ideal complement to Polly’s dramatic text with its ‘perfect’ ending.

Heidi

Heidi
Retold by Jeanne Willis, illustrated by Briony May Smith
Nosy Crow

Jeanne Willis retells the Johanna Spyri classic tale for a slightly younger audience than the original book. I remember totally loving the story of the orphan Heidi as a child and was fascinated to learn of this new version.

It’s a beautiful gift edition in Nosy Crow’s Classics series and both author and illustrator have done a cracking job making the story more accessible while retaining the spirit of the original.

When her Aunt Dete takes her to live with her grandfather, the spirited Heidi quickly makes friends with Peter the goat boy, and soon softens her Grandpa’s heart – Grandpa Alps as he’s known by the villagers.

She spends a happy two years in his mountain home; but then comes the devastating news. Heidi is to go to Frankfurt to act as companion to little Clara, the sickly daughter of a rich man there. So says her aunt Dete who turns up one day and whisks her away insisting it’s “the chance of a lifetime.”

Miss Rottenmeier is a veritable dragon of a woman and Heidi finds it hard living so far from her beloved mountain home, despite getting on well with Clara,

so much so that she starts sleepwalking.

After a while the doctor suggests that the only cure for her is to let her return to her Grandpa. But what will happen to her new friend, Clara; will they ever meet again?

If you’re looking for a book for a developing reader and want to introduce them to the delights of Heidi, Jeanne Willis’ splendid telling really brings the characters to life and Bryony’s finely detailed illustrations are absolutely gorgeous.

Tooth Fairy in Training

Tooth Fairy in Training
Michelle Robinson and Briony May Smith
Walker Books

If you’ve ever wondered how tooth fairies hone their skills, then this magical tale will perhaps enlighten you.
Let’s meet the trainee Tate and her trainer, sister May who has much to teach her younger sibling.

First task is to perfect the ‘switcheroo’ – a doddle of course … unless that is, you happen to be performing it on a baby hippo.

Visit two is also pretty demanding and perhaps a tad alarming, especially when you’re being watched by the infant’s mother whose tail you have to avoid with some nimble footwork.

And so it continues over ground and under sea, on the shore and then having traversed almost the whole planet, the penultimate stop is in the jungle with the possibility of being swallowed by an anaconda – yikes! But snake teeth are a rarity so it has to be done.

Surely the final stop will be simplicity itself – it’s to a mere human girl. How could anything go wrong, and even if on the off-chance, it does, you can always resort to a touch of the old magic …

Does our novice pass the test though? That is after all, the purpose of the whole exercise: I’m not telling …

Briony’s illustrations are spirited delight, every one of them. Tate is totally adorable and her expressions and body language say even more than the lively rhyming narrative she (and Michelle) provides during the learning journey throughout which her big sister looks on benevolently and comments encouragingly.

I fell in love with this utterly blissful book.

Nell & the Circus of Dreams

Nell & the Circus of Dreams
Nell Gifford and Briony May Smith
Oxford University Press

Circuses hold a tremendous fascination for many children and so it is with young Nell although she doesn’t know it when the story begins. What she does know though is that she feels sad on account of her mother being ill and then, when she discovers a tiny chick in the farmyard, very happy.

Nell and the lost chick – she names it Rosebud – become almost inseparable.

One night Rosebud disappears from the end of her bed and when Nell wakes next morning her feathered friend is nowhere to be seen. Dashing outside she leaves the farmyard and heads through the still dewy meadows till she finds herself surrounded by enormous wooden wheels.

There’s an intoxicating aroma of coffee, toast and hedgerow flora, and she hears hammers striking metal. Lo and behold, she’s walked right into a circus.

Up goes the huge tent and Nell sees girls busy adding adornments inside and out. She helps and is invited into one of the wheeled homes where she joins a large family meal. She endeavours to communicate that she’s searching for her lost chick but suddenly the music starts and everyone rushes out and into the big tent.

Nell is mesmerised by the performances she sees …

but even better a wonderful surprise awaits her in the ring: there’s something feathery standing in a circle of light.
From then on, although sadly the circus has to depart, remembering doesn’t;

Nell carries the memories always in her heart and relives them in her own way.

Beautifully and movingly told by Nell, founder of Giffords Circus that has its home on the outskirts of Stroud, near to where I currently live much of the time, her words really capture the magic of all things wonderful about a circus community such as theirs.

I can think of nobody better than Briony to illustrate the story. Her jewel-like scenes are out-of-this-world wonderful, be they of Nell’s farmhouse home and yard, the temporary homes of the circus community or of the performance.

A must have picture book, this.

Springtime Picture Book Delights

This is a catch-up of some Macmillan titles:

The Nature Girls
Aki (DelphineMach)
Macmillan Children’s Books

Sixteen inquisitive girls – I love the fact they’re introduced by name on the title page – don identical yellow safari suits and sally forth to explore nature, in particular different biomes.
Bags on backs, having observed some rabbits in their garden, they head for the beach and clad in sub aqua gear, dive down

and swim with dolphins.

Then it’s back on with the safari suits and off they go walking through rainforest, across a desert,

then aboard a safari bus travelling through grasslands; on a plane tundra bound where they board a dog sledge

and finally, they sail off destination a forest alive with sounds of its wildlife.

Observant listeners and readers will notice the less obvious as well as obvious animals and other detail in Aki’s playfully adorable scenes, as her rhyming text bounces along as enthusiastically as the intrepid travellers. I absolutely love the sense of mischief occasionally shown by some of the young female friends in this joyous adventure and the final scene hinting of further wonder-filled adventures in the offing. Hooray for girl power!

A fun introduction to the scientific notion of biomes – the final spread about these may well set the inquisitive off researching the topic further.

Little Bear’s Spring
Elli Woollard & Briony May Smith
Macmillan Children’s Books

As any walk in town or rural parts will show, spring has well and truly sprung now and what better way to celebrate its joys (apart from a walk) than with terrific twosome Elli and Briony’s gorgeous book collaboration that celebrates not only the coming of my favourite time of year, but also, friendship.

When a little bear awakes one morning all he sees is a vast, seemingly empty snowy landscape.
Without a playmate, Little Bear spies a small smooth stone that feels like a promise.

Tucking it into his fur, he heads off down the track in search of friends.

Too busy for friendship, the birds are nest building and bear’s efforts to do likewise fail so off he goes again.

He finds however that the hares and wolves are also busy with spring preparations and his attempts to emulate them are, in the first instance merely a flop and in the second, pretty scary. This brief scariness however, precipitates the perfect finale of the story …

for when Little Bear awakes next morning a whole new world with an exciting surprise awaits …

Delivered in faultless lyrical rhyme Elli’s terrific tale with its wonderful evocations of spring, and Briony’s stupendous scenes of the natural world and the changes therein, (her use of ‘night and light and the half light’) with the terrific portrayal of the zestiness of life in springtime make this book’s a true treasure no matter what time of year you share it.

What Clara Saw
Jessica Meserve
Macmillan Children’s Books

Clara’s enthusiasm for the school trip to a wildlife park could so easily have been thwarted by the egotistic, know-all, humans are vastly superior to other animals, attitude of teacher, Mr Biggity, as he walks around intent on proving the veracity of his fake-scientific assertions to the children in his class at every opportunity, talking down the animals’ awesome characteristics.

Clara in contrast walks around with an open mind and eyes, wondering and observing what the residents of the animal park are doing. “Do animals feel sad?” she asks … ‘no, no and NO, … their brains are far too small for feelings” comes his retort.

And of course they can’t possibly communicate, use tools to get what they need and absolutely ‘don’t care about the world around them’ …

As Mr B. rabbits on, the animals are engaged in using their aptitudes, knowledge, skills and natural instincts to outwit the park keeper and come to the aid of a giant tortoise, about to be transported away from her fellow animals.

So much is shown rather than told. Jessica’s exquisitely observed watercolour and pen illustrations say far more than her words: Clara’s fascination and joy as she watches the animals is evident from the outset as is Mr Biggity’s condescending attitude both to his charges and the animals. Note the position of his right hand as they enter the park, his meticulously tied laces, his upturned foot as he strides forth and in contrast, the expressions of the children, as they look in wonder at what they see.

This humorous, cleverly constructed story brilliantly demonstrates how best to learn; how not to be gulled by false information (HMMM!) and there’s not a tiny weeny touch of the dogmatic preachiness that is Mr B. anywhere in sight.

Grab That Rabbit!

Grab That Rabbit!
Polly Faber and Briony May Smith
Pavilion

Hodge is a large white rabbit with a single black splodge. On this particular day however he isn’t his usual happy self and that’s on account of having got himself stuck in the hedge due to his over-indulgence.

No amount of wriggling has managed to release him when into the garden comes Mrs Sprat intent on pulling up some tasty carrots for her dinner.

The trouble is that on account of a certain rabbit, there’s a distinct lack of carrots.

A furious Mrs Sprat grabs hold of Hodge’s rear end, out he comes and …

Happily Hodge makes a run for it but what he doesn’t notice is the large shadowy shape above him about to swoop …
And swoop it does, seizing Hodge in its talons. Fortunately for the rabbit but not so for the predator, all those carrots have made Hodge a heavy catch, so heavy that the buzzard drops him. Plop! He lands right on Mrs Hodge’s hat. Splat!

Is he destined for her cooking pot instead of those carrots?

With her clipped narrative style Polly Faber has seemingly taken reading scheme language and turned it into a playful parody of same which, unlike the former, is involving for listeners and reads aloud really well.

Appropriately executed in predominantly earthy hues, Briony May Smith’s illustrations are superb: wonderfully dramatic and full of absorbing details that make you want to linger over every spread.

Stardust / In My Room

Stardust
Jeanne Willis and Briony May-Smith
Nosy Crow

For the little girl narrator of the story, it’s deeply upsetting being the sister of someone who always seems to be the star of the show where family members are concerned, other than Grandad, that is.
Then one night after losing the Fancy Dress Competition to her big sister,

Grandad finds our narrator outside gazing up at the starlit sky. Her wish to be a star prompts him to tell her a story: the story of how the universe came into being.

A story that explains the connectedness of everything and everyone: “Everything and everyone is made of stardust,” he tells her. “… Your sister isn’t the only star in the universe… you all shine in different ways.
And, inspired by his words, shine she does – in the most amazing way.

Such wise words; words that the little girl never forgets but equally, words that every child needs telling, sometimes over and over.
Briony May-Smith’s stunningly beautiful illustrations really do celebrate connectedness, diversity and individuality; they’re every bit as empowering as Jeanne Willis’ text.
Strongly recommended for families and early years settings to share and discuss.

In My Room
Jo Witek and Christine Roussey
Abrams Appleseed

The fifth of the ‘Growing Hearts’ series of novelty books starring a little girl protagonist is essentially a celebration of creativity and imaginative play.
The thick pages are cut so that when the book is turned through 90 degrees, they form together a variegated pencil crayon with which the girl conjures up a series of playful scenarios.
All I need is paper, crayons, chalk … and my imagination!” she tells readers.
First she’s an explorer, then a dancing princess; she becomes a speed racer, a teacher, a writer,

a sailor, a swimmer, a bride, a vet and finally, a funky rock star; all without leaving her room other than in her head

and courtesy of her art materials. Not a sign of any technology anywhere – hurrah!
Yes, there are already plenty of picture books that celebrate the power of the imagination; what makes this one different is the format.
Long live creativity!

I’ve signed the charter  

Imelda & the Goblin King

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Imelda & the Goblin King
Briony May Smith
Flying Eye Books
Imelda lives next to a wood, but this wood is a magical one populated by fairy folk and their fairy queen. It’s a place of peace and harmony and Imelda loves to spend her days frolicking with, and learning from, the fairy folk.

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Then one day into this life of tranquility bursts a foul-tempered Goblin King and his green goblin horde. His manners are appalling, despite the fairy queen’s best efforts …

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and he has the effrontery, after gobbling up the whole solstice feast, to seize his host and imprison her in a cage.
The other fairies call upon Imelda’s help and together they cook up a clever plan that offers the greedy goblin king one final chance …

 

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The happily ever after finale isn’t quite the one you might expect, or perhaps it is, given that pretty much everything about this cracking book is delightfully idiosyncratic, not least the manner in which the anti-hero becomes the agent of his own downfall,

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an outcome which had my young audiences cheering in appreciation.
What a dazzling cast of characters: Imelda, the heroine, is an unflappable young miss, the epitome of all that’s good but still not afraid to turn her hand to a spot of subtle trickery to further a worthy cause; the Fairy Queen with her rosy cheeks and flowing golden hair certainly isn’t always as soft and sweet as she looks …

 

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and as for that Goblin King, he’s a pretty terrifying-looking bullying beast unlikely to worm his way into anyone’s affections.
And every single fairy has its own distinctive appearance – there’s even a blue one that looks like a mini Martian and the goblins, they pretty much resemble their king though they look a lot less threatening at least some of the time. Add to all those, a scattering of dragonflies, butterflies, birds, and other creatures and you have a veritable visual fest.
With a compelling narrative that doesn’t pander to whimsy and has just a tiny frisson of fear, this enchanting book is like nothing else I’ve encountered in the fairy tale genre of late.
Cracking stuff.

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