A Polar Bear in the Snow / In the Half Room

Here are two recent picture books from Walker Books kindly sent for review:

A Polar Bear in the Snow
Mac Barnett and Shawn Harris

In dramatic fashion a sleeping polar bear stirs, sniffs the air and sets forth on a walk the destination of which is known only to himself. Readers join him as he’s observed by seals, arctic foxes,

a human even

until, having traversed the snowy, icy landscape, he arrives at the startlingly blue sea.

Plunging in, the creature’s feeling playful as he enjoys frolicking amidst the fishes and fronds,

before clambering back onto the snow and continuing on his way.
Wither is he bound now? That is left for readers to ponder upon …

Splendidly playful: who can resist accompanying the polar protagonist in Mac Barnett’s spare narrative and Shawn Harris’s arresting torn paper art that’s cleverly layered to give the illustrations a three-dimensional effect, as the creature sallies forth on his walk.

In the Half Room
Carson Ellis

This is a somewhat surreal, enigmatic, rhyming bedtime book wherein Carson Ellis presents a moonlit room in which everything is carefully cut in half. We don’t see the entire setting initially; rather we’re shown a series of partial items – ‘Half chair/ Half hat / Two shoes, / each half / Half table / Half cat’.

Then, once the room has all the half items mentioned, comes ‘Half a knock on half a door’ and there stands the woman’s other half.

Having come together, she’s wholly ready to dash out to embrace the world beneath a starry sky.

Meanwhile, in through the door left ajar, comes half a cat

to participate with its other half in a half-cat fight’ after which the two entwine un-united, on the mat and fall asleep.

With bold images, this is wholly entertaining and intriguing though perhaps some youngsters will be left feeling just a tad bemused by such an offbeat offering.

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.)

Du Iz Tak?

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Du Iz Tak?
Carson Ellis
Walker Books
Google translate often comes to the rescue when one is confronted with a piece of text in an unfamiliar language. I doubt it would be of help here though for the characters in this story speak ‘insect’. It’s delivered in dialogue – nonsense dialogue unless of course, you happen to be a damselfly or another insect.
Du iz tak?” one asks the other as a pair of damselflies gaze upon an unfurling shoot. “Ma nazoot.” comes the reply. Now, as this brief exchange is contextualised by the picture we can take a guess at its meaning ‘What is that?’ and ‘I don’t know.’ in the same way somebody learning English as an additional language might.
Time passes: The shoot continues to grow and to the left, the dangling caterpillar has become a pupa. More bugs discuss the ‘thing’ -a plant, but what kind? They need something:“Ru badda unk ribble.” We need a ladder – context again.
They call on Icky who lives, conveniently, close by …

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A ladder is produced, a cricket serenades the moon …

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and work on building a ‘furt’ starts. Then danger presents itself in the form of an ominous arachnid

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that soon starts enveloping their enterprise in a large web, until that is, along comes a large bird putting paid to that. Happily the gladdenboot remains intact and eventually, fully unfurled delights both the whole insect community and readers.

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That however is not quite the end of the story for the cycle of nature must take its course with further transformations – plant and animal – so the whole thing can start over … and over and …
By this time readers will most likely be fluent readers of ‘insectspeak’, but whether or not this is so matters not: the superbly whimsical story visuals carry you through with their own spectacular grammar.
I do wonder whether despite being from the US, Carson Ellis could be having a satirical dig at the nonsense words six year olds are asked to read in that ridiculous phonics test they’re faced with towards the end of Y1; the one that many who read for meaning come unstuck with; the one the government insists is assessing reading. It’s not. At best, it’s merely assessing one aspect – decoding. Rant over: this extraordinary book is a total delight.