The Climbers

The Climbers
Ali Standish, illustrated by Alette Straathof
Stripes Publishing

This new title in Stripes full-colour fiction books for new solo readers stars young Alma who lives with her overbearing uncle in a town bordering a forest, a forest in and beyond which young Alma longs to explore. “The forest is full of fearsome beasts. That’s why only hunters are allowed there,” her uncle insists when he discovers she’s climbed a tree. And as for the mountains beyond, they are populated by settlers as bad as the beasts.

Nevertheless Alma feels drawn to the world beyond her narrow hometown and that night she ventures out into the darkness determined to see the forest for herself.

As she walks deeper among the trees, the bird song seems to be welcoming her and suddenly, hearing a cry, she comes upon a frightened – looking bear cub. Unable to leave it alone but unable to take it home, she carries him gently to a disused shed on the edge of town; then she creeps back indoors and falls fast asleep.

Every night thereafter, Alma and the cub – she calls it Star Bear – slip out and explore the forest together.

The cub as bear cubs do, grows bigger and one day rumours of a bear sighting are spreading in the town’s market square. Fears escalate: a giant sharp-toothed beast brought by the mountain settlers, they decide. Anna keeps her knowledge to herself, while the mayor decides a wall round the town is to be erected to keep outsiders from entering and a search for the ‘beast’ begun.

She takes Star Bear back into the forest, fearing that what the townsfolk are doing will shortly prevent them from meeting.

More and more trees are felled to build the stockade and lack of food in the dwindling forest results in empty-bellied townsfolk. Should Alma now reveal the truth? She does and soon finds herself on Star Bear’s back as they flee for safety into the deepest depths of the forest. Before them are the mountains. There’s only one way to go …

On the mountainside the two come upon a boy riding a tiger; the boy’s not scary or furry and introduces himself as Tully. The friendship that forms between them changes everything.

Without being a story spoiler I’ll say little more except that it’s a case of onwards and upwards, as the two children, and others they meet, (together with their animals) finally see the light: love and courage conquer and connect us all.

As in this powerful, moving story, so it is in our increasingly troubled times: it’s children who show the way when it comes to optimism, open minds and open hearts.

Beautifully told by Ali and dramatically illustrated by Alette Straathof, be it read alone or read aloud, this is a must read..

The Very Last Castle

The Very Last Castle
Travis Jonker and Mark Pett
Abrams Books for Young Readers

In the centre of a small town stands a castle, the very last castle. Every day Ibb walks past it and notices up in a turret, the guard watching the passers by.

Speculations are rife about who or what is within. Could it be monsters, or giants; snakes even?

They certainly make snaps, thuds and hisses. Ibb however is ready to be more open minded “Maybe it’s something terrible … but maybe it’s something else,” she thinks. She decides to investigate but what happens makes her run away in fright.

Shortly after she receives an invitation. Stay away comes the advice, but come Sunday Ibb ventures forth and does something nobody else in her town has done: she enters the grounds.

What she discovers isn’t monsters, giants or snakes: a warm welcome from the guard awaits. He shows her around and finally reveals what he wants – someone brave and curious to take his place.

Ever thoughtful, Ibb agrees but with a proviso and eventually the castle grounds become a welcoming place for everyone.

Beautiful illustrations by Mark Pett in pen and ink and watercolour, combined with Travis Jonker’s spare text create a lovely tale of curiosity, courage, reaching out and creating community.

Polonius the Pit Pony

Polonius the Pit Pony
Richard O’Neill and Feronia Parker-Thomas
Child’s Play

Having taught many Traveller children in various London schools, I was thrilled to have this new addition to Child’s Play’s books that feature travellers and their way of life.

This one tells of an erstwhile pit pony that escapes his underground life and gets in with a group of horses belonging to a Travelling family. Initially there’s some reluctance on their part to accept a pit pony: Grandad in particular wants to send him back to his fellow pit ponies but eventually he is persuaded to keep the animal and his granddaughter, young Lucretia volunteers to help look after the newcomer.

Polonius is quick to adapt to Travelling life and the children love him. Now all that Polonius wants is to be thought of as a hero.

One day his chance comes when the entire family has a large order of wooden stools to deliver to the docks in Daddo’s brand new truck, in time to be shipped to the USA the very next afternoon.

Next morning though, when they are due to set off, the family is engulfed in a thick blanket of fog that’s come down overnight. Could there be another way to make that important delivery? Perhaps with Grandad’s cart, so long as they can find an animal willing to brave the thick fog and lead the way to the docks.
It looks as though Polonious’s chance to thank his new family and be a hero has come …

Romany storyteller, Richard O’Neill introduces readers to a wonderful, hardworking, loving Traveller family. With a sprinkling of traveller dialect he roots the family in its culture, an early 20thC industrial countryside, although some of the words are still used today. Readers and listeners will be able to work out the gist of the meaning of the occasional unfamiliar words from the context.
Feronia Parker Thomas’ scenes of a bygone rural life are painted with delicacy and really show the warmth of family feeling for one another and for their animals.

How to be a Lion

How to be a Lion
Ed Vere
Puffin Books

‘This book is for those who daydream, and those who think for themselves’.
I love that. It’s written in Ed Vere’s inspiring ‘letter’ that accompanied my review copy; it’s also printed on the final page of his eloquent story: I hope it applies to myself, make that, to everyone. I wish everybody could read the entire letter, but instead I urge you to get yourself a copy of the book and share it widely.

It starts philosophically: ‘The world is full of ideas. /Big ones,/ small ones. / Good ones,/ bad ones. / Some think this … / others think that.’ before bringing us back to earth and in particular, lion territory on the African plains where the norm is to be FIERCE! But is that the only way to be?
Enter Leonard: thoughtful, prone to daydreams, something of a poet and above all, gentle.

Enter shortly after, a duck, Marianne by name. Being Leonard, it isn’t a case of ‘Crunch, crunch, CHOMP!’ Instead our lion, polite introductions over, requests her assistance and as luck would have it, Marianne is able to assist in freeing Leonard’s stuck muse and before long a firm friendship has been forged; one that involves stargazing, philosophical musings and above all, contentment and happiness.

Into their peaceable existence comes a pack of ferocious lions demanding to know why the duck has not met its demise.
True to himself, Leonard explains about their friendship and resists their loud growly admonishments.

Their instructions about becoming fierce make him pause and question however, but Marianne suggests a trip to their thinking hill to mull things over. Lo and behold, serious hums and serious quacks together are turned into an idea, and then, poetry that is finally ready to be presented to those fierce lions.

What Leonard says to them is heartfelt, provocative – “Why don’t you be you … And I will be I.” – and one hopes, a game changer.

Ed Vere’s timely fable is profound and intensely moving in the gentle way it offers words as tools of bridge building and change, as well as showing a different male role model. Don’t be pressurised into conforming, be yourself is what shines through both his words and oh, so eloquent, humorous illustrations.

A perfect read aloud with oodles of food for thought, and talk.

Coco Chanel & Frida Kahlo: Little People Big Dreams

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Little People, Big Dreams Coco Chanel
Little People, Big Dreams Frida Kahlo
Ma. Isabel Sánchez Vegara and Ana Albero, translated by Emma Martinez
Frances Lincoln Children’s Books
Delightfully different are these stylish picture book biographies for young readers, and both feature young women – girls when we first meet them – who themselves were different and proud to be so.
When we first encounter Coco Chanel, she’s called Gabrielle and lives in an orphanage. where the nuns there are far from happy about her unusual behaviour as they deem it, …

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Even at an early age, Gabrielle liked to spend time sewing rather than playing with the other girls and when she grew up, the young miss sewed during the daytime and sang at night. It was then people began calling her Coco.
Then one day Coco makes a hat for a friend, a hat quite out of the ordinary and thus begins her new career as a designer of hats.

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Before long though her flair for design leads her to create stylish clothes that not only looked different but felt different: they were comfortable to wear. Not everyone took to them straight away but gradually women realised that stylish needn’t mean stiff and sparkly:

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Coco Chanel had begun to make her mark on the fashion world and would continue to be remembered as a great designer and style icon even to this day.

Right from the start as a young girl in Mexico, Frida Kahlo stood out from the crowd. But it wasn’t until she was involved in a terrible road accident that Frida’s life really changed. Following the accident, she spent a lot of time in bed and to pass the time she’d draw pictures of first, her foot and then by using a mirror, entire self-portraits.


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Gradually she amassed a whole portfolio and decided to visit the famous artist, Diego Rivera. It wasn’t only her pictures that impressed him however, and eventually the two were married.

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Encouraged by her partner, Frida continued painting self-portraits, her pictures reflecting how she felt at the time and a show was organised of her work in New York City. Sadly though, Frida’s health continued to decline but despite this, she carried on painting to the end: her passion for life and for painting never left her. It wasn’t until after her death however, that the painter truly won fame as an international artist whose work is characterised by vivid colours and Mexican symbols.
Truly inspirational are these two women who have both left a lasting mark on the world and made it a better place for us all; and all because they dared to be different and let nothing or no one stand in the way of their dreams.
Both books have a time line at the end as well as additional facts and a brief list of further reading suggestions and museums where their work can be seen.
Definitely worth investing in for KS1 and lower KS2 classrooms and just the thing to help celebrate International Women’s Day on 8th March.

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The Lion Inside

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Emmanuelle relishing the encounters         between Mouse and Lion

The Lion Inside
Rachel Bright and Jim Field
Orchard Books
A wide, dusty savannah. One rock, two occupiers: beneath ‘in a tinyful house,  

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Lived the littlest, quietest, meekest brown mouse.’: atop, an enormous, toothsome creature with a roar to beat all roars, Lion.

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So very wee is the mouse that his life is one of frequent squashings and being overlooked.

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Lion meanwhile lives a life of constant adulation.

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How that tiny brown creature wishes he could be more like King Cat. Perhaps a roar would win him some friends. But who can be his roaring teacher?
Fearing for his life, the mouse summons up all his courage and ventures forth into the night to scale the heights towards the slumbering lion,

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until …

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But what is forthcoming in response to mouse’s request to be taught how to roar isn’t quite what he’d expected …
Mouse’s bravery and subsequent discovery is a game changer for both parties: mouse discovers his true voice, and lion? He still roars but it’s with laughter now. And they both know, as the finale to this super-dooper story says, ‘no matter your size. We all have a mouse AND a lion inside.’
With its vital message about ‘being the change’ and a tuneful text that reads aloud like a dream, this book is truly, all heart. Jim Field uses close-ups and a variety of viewpoints and perspectives to dramatic effect making both wide-eyed, wide-eared mouse and bristle-maned lion with his cavernous jaws appear larger than life and truly awesome.
Two great new partnerships: mouse and lion, and Rachel Bright and Jim Field.

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