A Stone for Sascha

A Stone for Sascha
Aaron Becker
Walker Books

I could just write a single word in response to this story– awesome – but that wouldn’t help those who have yet to encounter Aaron Becker’s new wordless picture book. Nor would it do justice to his remarkable lyrical endeavour.
My initial reading called to mind two poems of T.S. Eliot, the first being the opening line of East Coker: ‘In my beginning is my end.

In Becker’s beginning we see a girl collecting flowers and discover they’re an offering for her beloved dog, Sascha’s grave.

The family – mother father, daughter and son – then leave home for a seaside camping holiday.
As night begins to fall the girl heads to the water’s edge and we see her standing beneath a starry sky about to throw a smooth stone.

Thereafter, time shifts and what follows are spreads of a meteor hurtling earthwards to become embedded in the ocean floor and we witness the evolution of our planet as the stone works its way upwards and out, as life transitions from water to land, dinosaurs roam and then give way to early mammalian forms.

Having broken the surface as an enormous protrusion, the stone is quarried and transported to a huge ancient royal edifice where it’s carved into an obelisk.

Wars, looting, fragmentation and remodelling occur as the stone moves through history becoming part of first a religious monument, then a bridge; is fashioned into a fantastical dragon and placed in an ornate carved chest; taken to an island and installed in a chieftain’s dwelling, stolen,

lost at sea and eventually, having moved through eons of time, is polished smooth and carried by the waves to the shore where stands the girl who finds it.

Now, as she presses the stone to her cheek she appears to have made peace with the situation and perhaps, her loss and grief.

The stone’s final resting place – as far as this story goes – is atop Sascha’s gravestone.
(You can also trace the whole journey through the timeline maps that form the endpapers.)

Becker’s layered pastel spreads – digitally worked I think – have in the present time, a near photographic, quality. The scenes of bygone eras where the degree of sfumato intensifies are, in contrast imbued with a dreamlike quality, being as Leonardo da Vinci said of the technique he too employed, ‘ without lines or borders’.

This intensely moving, unforgettable, multi-layered, circular tale is open to countless interpretations and reinterpretations depending on what we bring to the book, at any particular time. Assuredly, it makes this reviewer think about our own place in the cosmos and our connection to past and future, for to return once more to T.S. Eliot:
Time present and time past / Are both perhaps present in time future, / And time future contained in time past.’
Burnt Norton

Hello Hello

Hello Hello
Brendan Wenzel
Chronicle Books

An exchange of hellos between a black cat and a white one sets in motion a concatenation of greetings that celebrates the world’s amazing diversity of zoological life forms, as each turn of the page leads on to something different.

First it’s the varieties of ‘Black and White’ showcasing the black cat, a black bear, a panda, a zebra and a zebrafish.
This fish starts off the colour blast on the next spread where we find …

which completes the rhyming couplet.
The salamander greets the striped and spotted animals on the following page and so it continues with more and more animals and greetings as the creatures pose and posture, display their tongues,

avort, turn upside down or strut across the pages leading into a dance of interconnectedness over the final double spread.
Wenzel uses many different media – pastels, markers, coloured pencils, cut paper collage and oils to showcase his arresting animal and human compositions.

Each of the animals portrayed has a vital role in the ecosystem it inhabits and Wenzel reminds readers of this in the final pages of the book. There is also a double spread identification guide – a cast in order of appearance –that includes information on which ones are ‘vulnerable’, ‘near threatened’, ‘endangered’ or ‘critically endangered’ species. We should get to know more about these amazing creatures and the need to protect those under threat.
As Wenzel, himself an animal enthusiast, says in his author’s note, ‘It starts with saying hello.’

A clever and artful book that celebrates both difference and what unites us, and a message about acceptance of all.
Savour, share, and discuss.

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  

Pea Pod Lullaby

Pea Pod Lullaby
Glenda Millard and Stephen Michael King
Old Barn Books

A mother and baby, a little boy and a dog are fleeing for their lives. They board a small boat and set sail across the vast ocean.

Soon after, they’re joined by a bird.
Some days later, they espy a polar bear adrift on what appears to be a fridge-freezer. The huge bear clambers aboard their small boat and after their initial apprehension, the passengers make him welcome,

sharing what little they have with the creature as they journey onwards through wind and rain.
Their ursine passenger disembarks upon an ice floe where three cubs are waiting; and the boat sails on through night and day until wind-borne leaves herald their own landfall.

King’s eloquent watercolour and ink tapestry-like strip sequences punctuated by large, full-page spreads chronicle a journey from danger to safety. In combination with Glenda Millard’s prayerful poem (the two worked in close collaboration throughout on an art gallery wall project), the result is a powerfully affecting, deeply moving book that speaks to people of all ages.
It’s a poem for survival: survival of the homeless and displaced, for refugees especially (and sadly there are ever increasing numbers seeking safety in countries other than their own); for the survival of endangered animals too.
This sublime picture book offers a heartfelt message of caring, connectedness, love and hope; it’s one to treasure.

Last Stop on Market Street

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Last Stop on Market Street
Matt de la Peña and Christian Robinson
Puffin Books
A little boy, CJ, waits for the Market Street bus in the rain one Sunday after church. “How come we don’t got a car?” he asks his Nana; and this isn’t the only thing he shows dissatisfaction over. Nana however, has a wonderfully playful imagination: “We got a bus that breathes fire, and old Mr Dennis, who always has a trick for you.” (Mr Dennis, the driver obligingly produces a coin from behind CJ’s ear and hands it to him.)
As their journey progresses Nana helps her grandson to start seeing things differently – more as opportunities for delight: a big tree drinks rain through a straw; a man who cannot see with his eyes, watches the world with his ears.

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A real live guitarist passenger playing is far better than using a mobile to listen to music as the two older boys do, and when the man starts singing, CJ too closes his eyes and is transported:.‘He saw sunset colours swirling over crashing waves … He saw the old woman’s butterflies dancing free in the light of the moon … He was lost in the sound and the sound gave him the feeling of magic.

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Later as they walk back through their neighbourhood towards the soup kitchen,
Nana gently offers another reminder in response to his comment about everything being dirty: “Sometimes when you’re surrounded by dirt, CJ, you’re a better witness for what’s beautiful.” CJ then notices a ‘perfect rainbow arching over their soup kitchen’ and it causes him to wonder how his nana always finds beauty in places he’d never even think to look.

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So much in this uplifting book is about connectedness: connectedness between a young child and a much older adult; between – thanks to Nana – all the passengers on the bus, between the city and both CJ and Nana, between the city’s dirt and its beauty be it fleeting or long lasting; and between both main characters and their surroundings. All of this comes through in de la Peña’s superb text that enables readers and listeners to immerse themselves in the multi-sensory experience of the shared journey. In total harmony, Robinson’s energetic illustrations, executed in a warm palette, capture the poetry of the text perfectly.
A quietly beautiful book with a very potent message relating to acceptance, finding joy in the simple things of life with all its diversities, and the possibilities this brings. I hope it gets the large audience in the UK it deserves: I intend to share it widely.

There is a Tribe of Kids

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There is a Tribe of Kids
Lane Smith
Two Hoots
Connectedness is a longing that we all feel and it’s this need to belong that starts Lane Smith’s child protagonist off on a journey exploring the natural world through a day and a night, as he searches for that vital connectness. He begins on a craggy mountainside where we see him in the swirling snow, almost completely concealed among the TRIBE of KIDS. The kids leave him one after the other and our protagonist moves on and soon finds himself face to face with a penguin. This penguin takes him to a COLONY of PENGUINS that lead the lad in a merry dance and more

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until he finds himself plunging beneath the ocean where he mirrors the movements of a SMACK of JELLYFISH before being rescued by a POD of WHALES, seized by an UNKINDNESS of RAVENS and left alone on a FORMATION of ROCKS. Rocks from which he tumbles into a rubbish pile and thence, by some acrobatic manoeuvring, into a jungly GROWTH of PLANTS. There he has encounters with a whole array of marchers and musicians large and small …

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until a sudden torrential downpour halts him temporarily and he comes nose to nose with a caterpillar,

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and then …

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His wanting to connect however, drives him further until at nightfall we see him standing on a moonlit shore and thereon he sleeps till morning, discovers a trail of shells that lead him at last, to the where place he knows he should stay.

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A Place where he can be and belong: and there, let the wild dance begin …
Here, in this celebration of playfulness, acceptance, belonging and sharing is Lane Smith at his creative best and the whole thing is ingeniously built around collective nouns.
I urge you to get hold of a copy of this wonderful book and look, look and look again and then keep on looking. With its puns – visual and verbal – this is most definitely one to savour.

Use your local bookshop     localbookshops_NameImage-2

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