We All Celebrate

We All Celebrate
Chitra Soundar and Jenny Bloomfield
Tiny Owl

Probably somewhere in the world, no matter the month or the date, there will be people celebrating something or somebody, a birthday perhaps. This insightful book acknowledges that and introduces young readers to some of the less often mentioned festivals and celebrations from around the world, as well as presenting some that are well known such as Deepavali and Christmas.

Chitra Soundar uses both a global and a seasonal approach that starts with people wishing one another ‘Happy New Year’. and perhaps if they’re living in parts of Canada, jumping into the chilly sea doing the ‘Polar Bear Plunge’. However not all calendars begin on January 1st. Nowruz – the Persian New Year – celebrated in many countries including Iran, Tajikistan, Afghanistan and Turkmenistan is in March.

I think we all welcome the arrival of spring when we can begin to cast off our heavy winter clothes and blossoms start to burst forth. Blossoms – in particular those of the cherry trees or sakura – are a cause for celebration in Japan where people gather together for Hanami under the trees all pink with delicate sakura.

In contrast in India, the spring festival of Holi is anything but a quiet occasion to appreciate nature; it’s a time to join the throngs in the streets throwing coloured powder and water, and dancing to loud music. When in India at Holi, I hide away as I break out in a rash if I get the powder on my skin.

Summer, especially midsummer is another cause for celebration; I learned from this book that in Sweden families get together in the countryside and parks where they make garlands of flowers, adorn a maypole and dance around it, as well as feasting.
Sometimes the first day when Muslims celebrate the breaking of their Ramadan fast, Eid-al-Fitr, falls in the summer: Chitra devotes a double spread to fasting. giving brief details of some other fast days for other religious traditions.

No matter the time of year, food, music and dancing often play a big part in celebrations. It’s certainly true for carnivals and for some Pacific Ocean island festivals.

Autumn seems to be a time for honouring dead ancestors; people do so in South East Asia and in Mexico.

Strangely for UK readers, people in Peru celebrate the winter solstice (Inti Raymi) in mid June. Much more associated with winter is the Jewish festival of Chanukah celebrated over eight days and nights.

It’s important to remember, as Chitra reminds readers on the final spread, that like humans, celebrations change and evolve over time, but despite our differences, everybody celebrates.

Debuting as a picture book illustrator, Jenny Bloomfield’s vibrant, detailed spreads really do evoke the spirit of the celebrations.

Definitely a book for school collections and topic boxes.

New in the Bloomsbury Readers Series

Scratch and Sniff
Margaret Ryan, illustrated by Nathan Reed
Wings of Icarus
Jenny Oldfield, illustrated by Bee Wiley
Sindhu and Jeet’s Detective Agency
Chitra Soundar, illustrated by Amberin Huq
Maggie and the Moonbird
Katya Balen, illustrated by Pham Quang Phuc
Bamba Beach
Pratima Mitchell, illustrated by David Dean
Ping and the Missing Ring
Emma Shevah, illustrated by Izzy Evans
Bloomsbury Education

These are additions to the Bloomsbury Readers series: banded book stories that aim to foster independent reading at KS2, all written by award-winning authors and illustrated in black and white and definitely worth offering to children for home or school reading.

The titular Scratch and Sniff are dogs belonging to PC Penny Penrose. Said constable frequently gets given the boring tasks and this is so on the day we meet her counting traffic cones outside the police station while her colleague Sergeant Snide is off investigating a burglary at the furniture store. However when her two faithful pooches learn of this, they decide it’s time for the ‘doggy Secret Service’ to get to work and they too head off to the scene of the crime. There, they decide to look around outside leaving the sergeant to do his detecting inside and that’s when they’re party to something highly suspicious in the form of two men struggling to carry a heavy sofa, something with a very valuable cushion, that they put into a van belonging to the department store and drive off. Time to use those cones and to alert Penny …
With plenty of funny drawings this is assuredly, a fun cops and robbers tale for those readers just beginning to fly solo.

Wings of Icarus is Jenny Oldfield retelling of the classic Greek myth about the daring boy Icarus, imprisoned with his dad Daedulus on the island of Crete by King Minos, but determined to make their escape – one way or another. When the sea proves too much for their first plan, Daedulus decides that while their captor might be Lord of Earth and Sea, he certainly isn’t ruler of the skies. Hence their only chance is to take to the air … While Icarus sleeps his father builds wings from feathers collected and next morning after warnings from his father, the boy is so excited he takes off alone … Compellingly told and enticingly illustrated.

As Sindhu and Jeet (along with Sindhu’s parents) leave Chennai bound for London the best friends have different agendas for the holiday. The pair have formed Sindhu and Jeet’s Detective Agency but all Jeet wants to do is relax and be a tourist whereas Sindhu has brought along her young detectives’ handbook – just in case. Before they’ve even boarded the plane Sindhu spots something she thinks is suspicious behaviour. Almost the next minute the two friends find themselves trapped between a wall and two baggage burglars. Time to try some of their Kabadi skills … Will the plane wait even if they can extricate themselves from this and the next very tricky situation?
Happily yes, but that’s only the start of their adventures: next stop the sights of London, first off The Tower of London itself. So begins another exciting investigation where again the friends’ ace powers of observation and a liberal sprinkling of imagination, along with determination are called into play.
Even then they’re not quite finished with detecting. After a day of rest, they visit the Natural History Museum where Mum has a special interest in the conch collection and one conch in particular. However when they get to the cabinet where it’s supposed to be, there’s a label saying the item has been ‘temporarily removed’.When next they look, there’s a conch back in the cabinet, but is it the right one? Mum doesn’t think so … This holiday is turning out to be anything but boring after all decides Sindhu. There are plenty of thrills and tension to keep readers turning the pages in this one.

Pratima Mitchell’s contemporary story Bamba Beach immediately transported me to some of the many wonderful holidays I’ve spend in Arpora, Goa just off the coast. The setting is a fishing village where young Hari lives with his family. Times are hard with almost no fish left in the bay on account of the tsunami and to catch those further out, the family needs a boat with a flat bottom and an outboard motor rather than their old dilapidated one made from coconut wood. Hari knows full well they can’t afford it but the good-hearted lad is desperate to do something to raise money for his family. He’s not a boy to give up even in the face of village superstitions and family feuds; and when he’s offered a bi-weekly job washing local headteacher, Brother Angelo’s car, it’s at least a start. From small beginnings … though even with several more customers Hari reckons it will take fifteen years to make the capital needed to set up a shop. What else can he do?
Seemingly plenty, for it’s not long before unexpected help comes from somebody Hari has helped. A highly engaging and interesting look at a culture most young readers will not be familiar with.

In the same reading band is Katya Balen’s magical moonlight adventure Maggie and the Moonbird featuring a girl who instead of going bird-watching with her dad as she really wants, has to visit the zoo with her aunt and two annoying little cousins. There she sees a bird that despite its information label, doesn’t match her own knowledge or the description of the Silverfinch in her bird book. Nonetheless she picks up one if its feathers and takes it home. That’s where, after she’s in bed with the feather tucked under her pillow, the magic takes flight … Altogether an enchanting and timeless fantasy read that will surely get readers’ imaginations soaring.

The most challenging story is another contemporary one, Ping and the Missing Ring. Ping the protagonist and her family are Thai and live in Bath. The custom is that Thai people are calm, composed and polite, which Ping sometimes finds tricky to maintain.
So when she’s invited to stay with her cousins in West London in a house full of traditional Thai furniture and crafts, she promises her mum to be on her best behaviour; definitely no adventures or mystery solving. But, after a visit from Isabelle who has money troubles and a sick husband, Aunty Lek’s engagement ring is missing. She thinks Isabelle has taken it but Ping thinks otherwise: she can’t stop herself going into detective mode. Exciting and with lots of interesting details about the traditional Thai way of life, this like all the others, is an engaging read though herein the illustrations act as chapter breaks, as do those in Bamba Beach.

Sona Sharma: Looking After Planet Earth / Leo’s Map of Monsters: The Frightmare

Sona Sharma: Looking After Planet Earth
Chitra Soundar, illustrated by Jen Khatun
Walker Books

It’s great to have young Sona Sharma and her extended family back in another story. Now Sona is alarmed when she hears how much humans are doing to damage Planet Earth as her class talk about global warming, plastic pollution, deforestation and more and after the lessons she and her classmates all sign a pledge to do their bit to look after Planet Earth. Sona resolves to enlist the help of all her family members too, although once home she finds Paati (grandmother) is very preoccupied with perfecting her kolam designs in preparation for an upcoming competition.

Nonetheless, on Saturday Soma sets to work on her caring for the planet plan but her over-zealous electricity saving soon has other family members just a tad irritated, not to mention the disappearance of baby sister Minmini’s nappies.

Time for a family Panchayat as Sona’s grandfather calls it, to look at Sona’s list of changes to be made. There are some compromises but everyone seems satisfied with the outcome of the discussion and Sona goes to school clutching a plan she’s happy about on Monday morning.

That evening however, things happen that make her anything but happy and as a result some high drama ensues. The day ends well though but a new day brings another challenge for Sona when she resolves to get the use of chemicals, plastic and glitter banned in the kolam competition. 

Will she succeed? It might just require a miracle …

I’m an even bigger fan of Sona after this story: she’s certainly a force to be reckoned with. Her enthusiasm and determination are admirable even if they do get her into some tricky situations. I love too the way Chitra has woven into her narrative an explanation from the Ramayana of why the Indian palm squirrel has three stripes.

Jen Khatun’s line drawings are a delight; it’s great to have one, (often containing fine detail) on every spread.

Leo’s Map of Monsters: The Frightmare
Kris Humphrey, illustrated by Pete Williamson
Oxford Children’s Books

Leo’s role as apprentice to the Guardian, Henrik, is to protect the village from any monsters that lurk in the encircling forest while keeping his job secret. Even if receiving a summons from Henrik means curtailing his enjoyment of the Spring Festival being celebrated as this story opens.

It’s as well he’s just demonstrated his target hitting prowess at the festival; he’s certainly going to need it in this assignment; but is the truth about his job in danger of being revealed when his close friend Jacob decides to help?

There’s only one thing to do according to The Guardian: Leo must urgently obtain a hair from one of the ghostly Frightmare’s tails before the end of the night. Not a problem then, except that these monsters haunt the higher mountain passes protecting their territory by breathing deadly blue fire from their nostrils.

Can Leo succeed? Perhaps with map in hand and the assistance of his Leatherwing friend, Starla. 

However as he soon discovers, these Frightmares have an unexpected power that will make his task even more difficult: that and the fog. But as Leo tells himself, ‘failure just wasn’t an option’ …

Established fans of the series will eagerly join Leo in this new, splendidly written and illustrated adventure that’s packed with thrills, action and atmosphere. Newcomers will quickly find themselves sucked into the intriguing story too and also enjoy the map and concluding illustrated fact files.

Nikhil and Jay Save the Day / Nikhil and Jay The Birthday Star

Nikhil and Jay Save the Day
Nikhil and Jay The Birthday Star

Chitra Soundar, illustrated by Soofiya
Otter-Barry Books

The main focus of these two delightful books of short stories is preschooler, Jay and his elder bother Nikhil. Jay finds it frustrating when he cannot do all that his brother can – climbing the apple tree in their garden and lifting up Nana’s heavy bag, for instance. However, when it comes to blowing out his birthday candles and cutting the cake, he’s ready to accept a bit of brotherly assistance, both of which enable him to adopt a ‘we do’ attitude. That story is in the first book. 

There are also episodes telling of a visit to Grandpa and Nana’s home without the green story dragon that Grandpa bought for Jay; then comes the weekly pancake making day when Amma makes the dosa that the boys love so much. Again patience is needed on behalf of Jay whose eyes might prove to be bigger than his tummy. (At the back, Chitra has included a recipe for those, and chutney especially for those who fancy trying to make their own, ‘ the Chennai Granny way’).

The final story tells what happens when the boys make their regular Saturday visit to the library and discover it’s closed ‘forever’ 

– or is it? Perhaps not when the local community gets involved in a protest.

In The Star Birthday, there’s huge excitement in the household as Granny and Grandad from Chennai come to stay. 

One of the first things they do is take the boys to the nearby Indian market to buy fruit and vegetables. Seemingly they ate the mangoes in similar fashion to the way my partner does (although he doesn’t sit in the bath) but he does suck the contents through the peel having made a hole in the top.

After Granny and Grandpa have stayed a week, it’s only one more before it’s time to celebrate Nikhil’s birthday. So why does Granny insist they celebrate on that particular Saturday, calling it a ‘Chennai birthday’ and not on the following week?

Then all four grandparents and the boys plan a visit to the park but first they have to make sure they have the right things to carry the food in – definitely no plastic; and the boys conclude that it’s the best picnic ever.

In the final story the boys prepare to bid farewell to their Chennai grandparents but there’s talk of them paying a visit to Chennai at Christmas. Perhaps this might be the topic of the next book – I hope so. 

It’s lovely to see these books for newly independent readers (or for reading aloud) starring a British Asian family. Chitra draws on her own South Indian background and the stories are illustrated with gently humorous line drawings by Soofia on every page.

The Gingerbread Man/ Let’s Play, Daddy Bear!/ Manju’s Magic Muddle / Fizzy and the Party / A Hundred and One Daffodils

These are new additions to the Bloomsbury Education Young Readers series (one per band Turquoise, Purple, Gold, White, Lime) which aims to help children towards becoming independent readers. Thanks to the publishers for sending them for review:

The Gingerbread Man
Kandace Chimbiri, illustrated by Richy Sánchez Ayala
Let’s Play, Daddy Bear!
Dawn McNiff, illustrated by Andy Rowland
Manju’s Magic Muddle
Chitra Soundar, illustrated by Verónica Montoya
Fizzy and the Party
Sarah Crossan, illustrated by Nicola Colton
A Hundred and One Daffodils
Malachy Doyle, illustrated by Denise Hughes

In The Gingerbread Man, Kandace Chimbiri gives her lively telling a Caribbean flavour with this wonderfully aromatic character being chased by its old lady baker, an old man, a clutch of chickens, a horse, and a scary looking dog to the river’s edge. There however, it’s a monkey that beguiles the little fellow into accepting a lift across the water and ever closer to his mouth, but will the runaway end up being consumed?
Look closely at Richy Sánchez Ayala’s illustration showing what the baker of the runaway is holding.

Let’s Play, Daddy Bear! is a warm-hearted story with equally warm illustrations of a young bear that spends weekends at her father’s home where they play fun games like Monster Chase and Daddy-is-a-Big-Climbing Frame. But on this particular weekend Daddy Bear is so busy using his computer that his daughter becomes thoroughly bored with waiting for him to finish his work; and her ‘take notice of me’ tactics only serve to slow him down even more. Will he ever get to the end of his keyboard tap tapping and go outside to play with Little Bear?

There’s more boredom in Chitra’s second story featuring this little girl, Manju’s Magic Muddle. Again her protagonist again makes use of that lamp in her Grandmother’s wardrobe. Now when she summons the genie she learns that he is suffering from a terrible cold that’s having an adverse effect on his ability to grant people’s wishes correctly. Moggy, Cumin is against calling on said genie at the outset and although less than impressed at what he hears in this story feels sorry for the genie and his plight. Especially when it’s revealed that any more errors and the genie will be forever struck off the Genie Register. Can the two of them help sort things out when another call comes in on the Genie-O-Summoner? The genie is in no fit state to go it alone … With its theme of kindness, this is such a fun story with amusing genie mishearing outcomes to entertain youngsters along the way.

Slightly longer is Fizzy and the Party: Fizzy is certainly an apt name for the protagonist herein for she simply fizzes with energy even or perhaps especially at bedtime, which is when Mrs Crumbleboom is having her party.Despite Mum’s words to the contrary, young Fizzy dons her glitzy fairy gear and against Mum’s better judgement heads next door to her neighbour’s garden. Will she be allowed to stay and participate in the fun though? A good many young readers will recognise the bedtime delaying of persuasive Fizzy who provides not only a great rationale for being allowed to attend but continues to sway the situation her way throughout the story.

There are no humans in Malachi Doyle’s A Hundred and One Daffodils; rather it’s an enchanting story of Dusty the fox cub and her search for the appropriate number of daffodil flowers that will enable her and her friends that help her hunt, to enjoy a celebratory party for the first day of spring, just like Dad fox did year after year until he was a grown-up fox. Friendship and determination are key in this one.

All in all these short lively chapter books, with their carefully chosen words by popular authors, and attractive illustrations at every page turn, are certainly going to help a great many children on their way to solo reading. For adults guiding children on their reading journey, there’s a ‘Tips for Grown Ups’ inside the front cover and a ‘Fun Time’ for children at the end.

A Sliver of Moon and A Shard of Truth / Skeleton Keys: The Night of the Nobody

A Sliver of Moon and A Shard of Truth
Chitra Soundar, illustrated by Uma Krishnaswamy
Walker Books

Four linked short stories with an Indian setting feature Prince Veera and his best friend Suku. The two are invited by Raja Apoorva to spend the summer at Peetalpur where in addition to attending the festival they might have some challenges to meet and problems to solve, particularly as their uncle enjoys puzzles. Who pulled the king’s beard and moustache as he was taking his morning stroll, for instance.

There’s a trip to the seaside, a dispute over the ownership of a fig tree, a mystery of a blind sadhu – or is he? – to get to the bottom of, and finally, the strange case of the travelling astronomer and a gardener who needs some help. All that in just two weeks …

Just right for newly independent readers, these tales with themes of problem solving and fairness, combine Indian culture, folklore and storytelling, and are seasoned throughout with traditional style illustrations that break up the narrative.

Skeleton Keys: The Night of the Nobody
Guy Bass, illustrated by Pete Williamson
Little Tiger

The comic Skeleton Keys adventure series has reached its fourth tall telling and sees wildly imaginative young Flynn Twist and his baby sister Nellie living with Gran in the village of Matching Trousers. As the story opens Flynn is expressing concern about a little boy he’s just seen standing opposite, looking decidedly ’unwell’.

Over dinner Flynn admits to telling his sister a pre-bedtime tale called ‘Sir Flynnian versus the Horrible Darkness’, intending to send her off to sleep but instead she’s making a to-do upstairs. When he goes to investigate he’s faced with a shadowy shape that whispers “No-body”. But that is just the start of freakish happenings.

Soon there’s a knock at the door and who should it be but Skeleton Keys. Flynn is surprised to find that he and Gran have met before. Suddenly a strange girl appears, whom Skeleton Keys introduces as Daisy, his ‘partner-in-problem solving’. When Flynn tells them of his terrifying encounter with ‘The Nobody’, Skeleton Keys thinks it could well be a shapeless Unimaginary searching for physical form, but Gran quickly sends him packing.

Next morning Gran sends Flynn to deliver a letter to Old Mr Nash at The Windmill and as he sets out Flynn notices the boy over the road entering Gran’s house. Why would that be? And what has happened to Mr Nash?
Could there be a connection between the Horrible Darkness in the story Flynn told Nellie and the Nobody? Can Flynn possibly become that brave hero of his imagination, save Skeleton Keys and free the village from the dire danger of the Nobody? Maybe, with the help of Fur …

Crumcrinkles! The whole thing just goes to show the power of a wild imagination, no matter if it belongs to a tiny infant.

Oh my goodness – what a fun mix of terrific characters, wit and frissons of fear, as well as a large number of farts – freakish and otherwise – indeed there’s a throng of flatulent figures – an entire village population of 343 zombie-like nobodies, to be more precise, not forgetting Pete Williamson’s atmospheric black and white illustrations.

Sona Sharma Very Best Big Sister / Agents of the Wild: Operation Icebeak

Here are two terrific young fiction titles from Walker Books

Sona Sharma Very Best Big Sister
Chitra Soundar, illustrated by Jen Khatun

Young Sona Sharma lives with her family in the Tamil Nadu city of Chennai.

As the story opens, she’s getting increasingly agitated about the forthcoming birth of a new baby sibling, an event about which the rest of her household and extended family seems obsessed. (It’s also one that children in a similar situation to Sona might find difficult adapting to).

Sona most definitely needs the sympathetic listening ear of Elephant, her best friend and constant companion (except at school). Everybody seems set on Amma having a baby boy and when talk of the naming ceremony comes up, Sona resolves to help her Appa find the perfect girl’s name (her Amma is ‘looking for boy names’ he tells her.) Nobody in the family is allowed to know if it’s a boy or girl until after the birth.

Even with this important task, sharing is still a big issue for young Sona: can it be resolved before the baby arrives?

Can Sona become the very best big sister and live up to that family motto ‘Iyavadhu Karavel’? (Always help as best you can.)

I totally fell in love with Sona and the rest of her family and community (how great to have a woman auto driver). Through Chitra’s absolutely gorgeous story of welcoming a new arrival into the hearts and home of a loving community, told from Sona’s perspective and beautiful line drawings by Jen Khatun, readers/listeners will encounter some of the traditions

and rituals – cultural and familial – of this large Indian Hindu family which may well be new to them.
I can almost smell the jasmine and feel the steamy heat as I’m transported to one of my most favourite parts of the world – one I can’t wait to revisit once this terrible pandemic allows. Till then I have this warm-hearted tale to re-read over and over (until I can bear to pass it on). More please.

Agents of the Wild: Operation Icebeak
Jennifer Bell and Alice Lickens

Now permanent SPEARS field agents, Agnes and her partner Attie receive an emergency call and before you can say ‘penguins’ the two of them are disappearing down a speed funnel, destination Antarctica. It’s from there, sent by the team at the marine outpost, that the distress call came.

What is causing the seismic tremors being felt within and around the vicinity of the treatment centre, outpost 22? Why are all the Adelie penguins behaving in such an odd fashion? And, what on earth is the celebrity presenter and rare bird expert Cynthia Steelsharp, (one of Attie’s heroes) doing in a tent in the middle of the ice fields?

Moreover, why is she so interested in the little shrew’s trinoculars (that he’d needed to pass a two weeks training before being allowed to use in the field)?
Looks as though it’s a case of ‘operation species rescue’ for the SPEARS partnership (even though it may also mean an operation rescue of one of the pair).

Once again, team Jennifer (author) and Alice (illustrator) successfully interweave ecology and biology into an exciting and very funny story making it both enormously entertaining and educative (not a hint of preachiness at all).

Established Agnes and Attie enthusiasts (and I know a fair number) will devour this, likely in a single sitting; but you don’t really need to have read the first book to love this one, though if you’ve missed it I’d recommend getting hold of book Operation Honeyhunt and then move on to Operation Icebeak.

If you’re a teacher of 7s to 9s and would like to encourage your children to become eco-warriors, either book makes an enormously enjoyable class read aloud. (Back-matter includes information about the fragility of the Antarctic ecosystem and how readers can help reduce global warming.)

A word of warning – two actually: first -never say the word ‘onesie’ to your partner, let alone one clad in a watertight thermal body suit with SPEARS emblazoned across it; second – it doesn’t always pay to trust little lizards with the ability to change their colour.

Cavegirl / It’s Too Scary / Manju’s Magic Wishes

Cavegirl
Abie Longstaff and Shane Crampton
It’s Too Scary!
Adam & Charlotte Guillain and Sharon Davey
Manju’s Magic Wishes
Chitra Soundar and Verónica Montoya
Bloomsbury Education

These are three recent additions to Bloomsbury Education’s Young Readers series, which aims to help children take that important step into independent reading.

Each book has been written by a popular author, has short chapters providing suitable stopping points and full colour illustrations that make each book look inviting.

Cavegirl Aggie is an independent, creative little girl with a warm heart and a mission: to get a very special birthday present for her mum. She learns that one of the villagers, Gron, has found a piece of amber that glows like the sun and is certain it’s the right gift. She sets about her task, making several trades and finally she has something she thinks Gron will trade for the amber. Gron agrees but then on the way home disaster strikes in the shape of a boar and the amber disappears before her eyes. But Abbie isn’t one to give up and the satisfying story ends happily.

It’s Too Scary! is the story of a visit to the fair. Mum takes Jun and his sister Lin but while she’s eager to try all the rides, Jun who’s first visit to a fair this is, is fearful and wants to avoid anything scary. Can Lin, help her little brother overcome his fear of those ‘big rides’ so that he too can enjoy all the fun of the fair and make his experience one he’ll want to repeat?

Chitra’s Manju’s Magic Wishes is slightly longer in terms of words and like Cavegirl, has a little girl who is eager to give her mum a wonderful birthday gift. The story has plenty of action and excitement and of course magic – there’s a magic lamp, a genie and seven wishes, and an enormously tasty finale. Manju and her cat, Cumin discuss mum’s birthday present and Cumin suddenly becomes excited, rushing into Grandma’s room. It’s there that they accidentally discover Grandma’s magic lamp and by recalling Gran’s instructions Manju is able to call up a genie. He grants them seven wishes – more than Manju is expecting. Those will surely be sufficient to conjure up something very special. However the task isn’t quite as simple as they anticipate; indeed Manju almost runs out of wishes before that ‘just right’ gift is ready and waiting.

For adults sharing them with children, the inside covers of all three books have helpful tips, discussion points and creative ideas to extend the stories.

You’re Strong With Me

You’re Strong With Me
Chitra Soundar and Poonam Mistry
Lantana Publishing

For her third ‘With Me’ book Chitra Soundar sets her story on the scorched African grasslands and features a pair or giraffes – a mother one and her baby – taking for her repeat refrain ‘You’re strong with me’; and as with her previous titles, Chitra has done her background research.

Gently and reassuringly, the adult giraffe offers encouragement, advice and information as her little one begins to explore the world around.

There is so much to learn: the little one is unaware of the special symbiotic relationship between oxpeckers and giraffes and so attempts to shoo away the oxpecker that has landed on his mother’s back.

Mother giraffe explains its role (eating ‘itchy insects’ and cleaning her fur) and saying that what hurts her baby’s skin now will feel a mere tickle once her skin thickens. “Until then you’re strong with me” she comments.

The dangers of fire and its role in renewal are also explored,

as is the importance of being acutely aware of any sounds around; that way is to be forewarned of other animals be they foe or otherwise.

Further lessons follow as sunset comes and baby giraffe needs help reaching the water to quench her thirst

and then soon it’s time to stop for the night.

As always, intricately patterned composition and colour palette are key in Poonam’s illustrations. For You’re Strong With Me a multitude of brown and golden hues predominate, strongly evoking the arid landscapes of the setting (I have some curtains from India in a pattern and colour very similar to the endpapers.) and when appropriate she adds teal shades for the creek wherein the little giraffe encounters baby fish and is instructed how to quench her thirst, doing so safely under her mother’s watchful eyes.

The Chitra/Poonam partnership goes from strength to strength: whither next? I can’t wait to see.

You’re Snug With Me

You’re Snug With Me
Chitra Sounder and Poonam Mistry
Lantana Publishing

Chitra Soundar sets the follow up the You’re Safe With Me in the wintry wilds of the Arctic.

Her tale of care and protection begins in a den dug into a snowdrift by Mother Bear where she gives birth to two cubs.

As they grow they become more curious: “What lies beyond here?” they ask. Their mother tells them of the frozen lands without, lands where, thanks to the hard snow, it’s safe for them to walk; but “only where the land will let us walk . .. “But hush now, you’re snug with me.”

Longer nights bring restlessness to the growing cubs and a reassurance that “As long as the ice stays frozen, we will never go hungry.”

From then on, Mother Bear gently teaches her little ones about the importance of maintaining the delicate balance of nature: the ice will only melt “if we don’t take care of it.” …

“We should only take what we need.”

In between times she answers their questions, telling of the approaching spring; of Earth’s place in the cosmos and the other animals they share the land with. All the while punctuating her lessons with the reassuring refrain, “But hush now, you’re snug with me.”

By the time there’s a whiff of spring in the air outside. Mother Bear has taught her cubs all she knows, thus preparing them for their independence.

Now it’s time to venture outside and welcome the new spring – Mother and cubs together.

The environmental message is soft spoken in Chitra’s mellifluous text but she adds a final page spelling out her hopes that readers will take on a stewardship role when it comes to caring for our precious planet. We’re also given some additional information about polar bears and I was surprised to learn that new- born cubs are only the size of guinea pigs.
Inspired, I think, by Indian folk art patterns and repetitive block print motifs, such is the mesmeric quality of Poonam’s intricately patterned images that you find yourself transfixed by every spread and her colour palette is absolutely gorgeous.
Picture books don’t get more beautiful than this.

A winter blanket, a hot chilli chocolate and Chitra and Poonam’s book – bliss on a chilly day.

Blog Tour : You’re Safe With Me

Red Reading Hub is thrilled to be part of the blog tour for a truly stunning picture book; thank you Lantana Publishing for inviting me to participate.

You’re Safe With Me
Chitra Soundar and Poonam Mistry
Lantana Publishing

It’s night-time deep in the Indian forest: the moon is high and the stars a-twinkle. Suddenly though the skies turn deepest dark as a storm brews. All the baby animals are wakeful and scared.
Fortunately for them, Mama Elephant – huge and wise – arrives on the scene and with her softly spoken “Hush … You’re safe with me.” rocks the little ones to sleep.
The wind causes them to whimper and Mama Elephant offers an explanation, “Don’t worry … He’s an old friend of the forest. He brings us seeds from faraway lands.
Further explanations are provided concerning the clattering thunder, the zigzagging lightning and the rumbling river all of which are proffered in the manner of a lovely gentle lullaby that brings comfort and slumber to all the little animals.

Simply and memorably told with a repetitive structure, onomatopoeia and alliteration this tale is rich indeed.

I’ve been fortunate to visit India – the Keralan forests, coastal Kerala, Goa, Himachel Pradesh and Rajasthan – many times during the Indian monsoon season: it truly is an amazing multi-sensory experience, different in every location.
Both author, Chitra Soundar and artist, Poonam Mistry capture monsoon time so beautifully in their wonderful book.

I now hand over to Chitra to talk about her own monsoon memories that inspired her story …

You’re Safe With Me originates from the memories of the monsoon storms of my childhood. I grew up in the coastal city of Chennai, a port and a fishing hub. During the monsoon season, we got used to listening to the radio for news about the storm and we knew all the technical terms that define the ferocity of the storm.

Here is a sample of a video in Tamil that describes the storm that’s expected. We heard similar broadcasts, except on the radio. As kids of course we didn’t have TV until I was 15 (another long story).

My memories of rain are clearly etched with sound, the feeling of damp and wetness everywhere – clothes not drying, squishy doormat, wet clothes and the smell of damp clothes. As a 6-year old I remember climbing on to the top shelf of my cement cupboard because our flat was flooded. We waited the water out by sleeping on the top shelves.

As an 8-year old and later, I have sat by the radio listening to the news, waiting for my father to return from work. An hour’s journey would stretch into four as he waded through the streets, drenched in the rain. As a teenager, I have cycled in the rain to school, my book-bag wrapped in three sheets of plastic. I remember losing my expensive raincoat at school and having to cycle through the torrential downpour.

But all my memories of tropical thunderstorms are not scary or stressful. For a city that’s hot most of the year, rains are both a blessing and a curse. The first drops fall on the parched ground, evoking the fragrance of the earth. The rain is relentless, loud and full of promise. The good memories are always associated with the cool air, the sound of rain and a spicy Indian snack with a book by the window.

I’ve returned to the topic of the thunderstorm often and in various ways. Long ago when I was just starting out, I wrote a story that was inspired by a real life incident during the monsoon rains called Afraid of Dogs.

And of course my love for flood stories led me to the story of Pattan’s Pumpkin, which is again set during the torrential downpour of the monsoon season.

You’re Safe With Me is a storyteller’s take on the thunderstorm. Monsoon rains and thunderstorms are dramatic elements of this beautiful earth. Clouds gather over the ocean, they create low pressure and they bring rain and storm. I wanted children not to be afraid of its ferocity.

But this is also a book about perspectives. I wanted young readers to look at anything loud or bright or scary from a different viewpoint. Something unfamiliar might terrify us. Once we understand an unknown, it’s familiar, it can be fun or perhaps it needs to be respected.

I had no expectation of how the illustrations would turn out. I knew Poonam Mistry will and should interpret the story the way she sees it and she would bring her own experience of the storm to the story. And she has done it wonderfully, hasn’t she?

Her art inspired by India has brightened the pages and created a third dimension to the story.

Thunderstorms are a necessary part of living near the ocean. And we’re just a small part of how things work on this planet. And therefore, we should do our part to protect the nature around us, lest we should one day be deprived of its beauty and kindness.

Thank you Chitra.
For more guest posts and reviews, I hope readers will follow the rest of this blog tour.

Pattan’s Pumpkin / Prince Ribbit

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Pattan’s Pumpkin
Chitra Soundar and Frané Lessac
Otter-Barry Books
Subtitled ‘An India Flood Story’ it seemed highly appropriate to be opening the parcel containing this book on the day of my return from a trip to India during a very wet monsoon season. Essentially it is a retelling of a tale from the Irular tribe of the southern state of Kerala. It relates how a man called Pattan finds and nurtures an ailing plant …

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until it grows and thrives becoming an enormous pumpkin (a bottle gourd in the original). One day Pattan awakes to a furious storm raging outside his hut and so worried is he about the fate of the animals and plants that he lays awake all the next night: he knows he and his wife must leave their mountain home but how can they take so many creatures with them? Looking out through his window he sees the pumpkin lit up by lightning and an idea strikes him. Next morning he grabs his axe and sets to work on the pumpkin, hollowing it from within.

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Eventually all is ready and having rolled down the mountain with animals and humans inside, the pumpkin sails off on the rushing river. Having sailed for many nights and days, the pumpkin and contents reach the plains and out come Pattan, his wife, Kanni, and all the animals safe and ready to continue their lives …
Frané Lessac’s naïve style illustrations are a kaleidoscope of colour and the playful expressions of the animals inject humour into the straightforward, direct narrative. A must for primary classrooms; why not try sharing it around harvest time.

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Prince Ribbit
Jonathan Emmett and Poly Bernatene
Macmillan Children’s Books
The author/artist team in this funny picture book put a fresh spin on the traditional Frog Prince fairy tale. The frog herein is a cunning fellow who happens to overhear a conversation between Princess Martha and her sisters. Arabella and Lucinda who have just read the story of the Princess and the Frog. The latter two are romantic tale enthusiasts whereas Martha prefers facts and real frogs to fairy tales and what’s more she’s heard a real frog croaking in the royal pool.
Now all the while, a clever little frog has been listening to the princesses discussing fairy tales, in particular those featuring princes; indeed a princely kind of life-style has great appeal for him, and this gives him an idea. The thing is he needs to convince those princesses that he is indeed Prince Ribbit and then maybe, he’ll come in for some right royal treatment. He’s certainly pretty determined but Princess Martha is going to take a lot of convincing …

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The others however are ready to indulge …

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So who is right? There’s one point that all parties make use of, including Prince Ribbit but can the answer really lie in one of those books …

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Or is there another, more practical way to find out for sure: “True Love’s Kiss” no less.
Author Jonathan Emmett and illustrator Polly Bernatene bring their own brands of magic to this spin on the classic Frog Prince fairy tale. The illustrations are vibrant, funny and full of dotty details. Young audiences will delight in spotting all the visitors from other classic tales in this scene …

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Emmett’s telling is also full of fun and I particularly like the use of “Just because it’s in a book, it doesn’t mean it’s true.” by the various characters. Wise words indeed.