The Friendship Bench

The Friendship Bench
Wendy Meddour and Daniel Egnéus
Oxford Children’s Books

New beginnings is the theme of this beautiful story that celebrates young children’s creative play.

Tilly has just moved to a new home beside the sea: the setting looks gorgeous but she’s very disappointed when her mum tells her that her beloved dog Shadow can’t go into her new school on her first day. Nothing is the same without her canine friend.
At playtime, Tilly is alone and when her teacher notices this he suggests she try the Friendship Bench. However when she gets there, the bench is already occupied. Back to the teacher goes Tilly who tells her to have another try.

The little boy hasn’t vacated it however, so she joins him and after a bit they both decide the bench needs fixing to make it work. They set to work improving it until …

On the way back from school that afternoon Tilly tells her Mummy about how she and Flint transformed the Friendship Bench and about their future plans.

As always, there’s power in both Wendy’s straightforward, finely honed telling and Daniel Egnéus’ dreamlike illustrations. I love his warmth, the occasional gentle humour in the details and the way he puts readers right close to the action.

One to add to foundations stage/KS1 collections and family bookshelves.

Tisha and the Blossom

Tisha and the Blossom
Wendy Meddour and Daniel Egnéus
Oxford Children’s Books

What is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.

To me, these opening lines of the WH Davies poem I learned in primary school lie at the heart of this latest collaboration between Wendy Meddour and Daniel Egnéus.

Like most of us, young Tisha and her family lead busy lives and wherever she goes, whatever she does, the little girl is constantly being told by adults to “Hurry up”. It happens in the morning as she enjoys watching the blossom fall, as she leaves for school and all the way through the school day.

So when her mum arrives to pick her up and urges her to hurry for the bus, it’s the last straw.

Fortunately Tisha’s request that they slow down results in mother and daughter walking home and enjoying a special game to help them do just that.

Then when they reach home Dad is there to join in with the welcome change of pace.

We all need to make time to be still and mindful in our hectic world; if nothing else the last twelve months has made us realise the importance of paying attention to the pleasure offered by small things. Wendy’s engaging story with Daniel Egnéus’ scenes – especially the blossom-filled ones, are a truly gorgeous affirmation of this.

Fox: A Circle of Life Story

Fox: A Circle of Life Story
Isabel Thomas and Daniel Egnéus
Bloomsbury Children’s Books

This beautiful book sent me straight back to my copy of T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, to the opening line of East Coker, ‘In my beginning is my end.’

As the story opens in early spring in a still frozen forest life is astir: we follow fox as she sets out to find food for her three cubs.

We meet them a few weeks later – bigger, bolder and playful close to the safety of their den. They too decide it’s time to try being hunters as they follow their parent on the hunt.

Suddenly danger appears in the form of a car; the three cubs dash safely across the road but not so their mother. She is hit, tossed into the grass and dies.

The cubs return home leaving a decomposing body that little by little, over almost a year, returns to the earth, to the plants and to the air.

Her remains provide food and shelter for other creatures and a place for new life to be nourished and flourish. For death is not merely an end, it’s a beginning too.

The powerful, beautifully written non-fiction narrative of Isabel Thomas and the stunningly gorgeous illustrations of Daniel Egnéus combine to make a book that answers one of the ‘big’ scientific questions children ask, ‘ What happens when we die?’ and provides a perfect starting point for talking about the cycle of life and death or, as the subtitle says ‘A circle of life story.’
(There’s also a final spread that has separate paragraphs explaining ‘The building blocks of life’, “What is death?’, What is decomposition’, ‘The cycle of life’ and ‘Death is not just an end’.

There’s no need to wait for the death of a beloved pet or human before sharing this book with youngsters though: I’d suggest reading it with a class or in a family at any time, particularly at a time when the seasons change.

Tibble and Grandpa

Tibble and Grandpa
Wendy Meddour and Daniel Egnéus
Oxford Children’s Book

The relationship between a child and a grandparent is often very special and uncomplicated, and so it is here.

Tibble’s Grandpa is grieving. He seems to be always in the garden: Mum explains that what he needs is time.

Full of loving concern, Tibble wants the old Grandpa back: he barely recognises this silent, withdrawn person. Little by little he gets Grandpa to open up as they spend time together talking of favourite things.

Next morning Grandpa actually seeks out Tibble’s company and they spend the day doing the boy’s favourite things – his ‘Top Three Days Out’ all in one.

That evening they get out the telescope Granny had given to Tibble and they watch the stars together. Tibble opens up a discussion about favourite (Top Three) Grannies, ‘Mine are granny who is dead. Granny Agnes who lives on top of the shoe shop. And the Granny in Little Red Riding Hood,’ he says and this acts as a release for Grandpa.

Wendy Meddour has created an enormously affecting tale of loss, grief and love. Her repeated use of ‘Top Threes’ throughout the narrative is genius, injecting just the right degree of gentle humour into her telling.

Daniel Egnéus reflects so well both the humour and poignancy of the story in his outstanding mixed media illustrations making you feel as though you want to hug both Tibble and Grandpa.

Yes it’s a book about coping with the death of a loved one but it’s also an outstandingly beautiful story about intergenerational love and its power to heal.

Lubna and Pebble

Lubna and Pebble
Wendy Meddour and Daniel Egnéus
Oxford University Press

Every pebble is different, some are special, others not: the pebble in this beautifully moving story is of the former kind. It’s smooth, shiny, grey and it’s Lubna’s best friend. She discovered it when she and her father arrived one night on the beach before falling fast asleep in her Daddy’s embrace.

These two people have landed in a tented world and with her pebble clutched in one hand and her Daddy’s hand in the other, the little girl feels protected.

In one of the tents she finds a felt-tip pen, which she uses to draw a smiling face on her pebble.

Lubna opens up to Pebble telling her now much loved new pal of the war, her home and her brothers.

Winter comes and with it chill winds that flap the tents. Daddy keeps his daughter warm and together they make a warm bed for Pebble.

Into this chilly camp comes a little boy, silent and afraid. Lubna introduces him to Pebble and the boy introduces himself to Pebble: Amir is his name.

A new friendship develops between Lubna and the newcomer although Pebble remains her best friend.

One day Daddy receives some wonderful news: he and Lubna are leaving for a new home.

Amir’s reaction means that Lubna now has mixed feelings and that night in bed she lies awake pondering. She consults Pebble but no answer is forthcoming.

By morning though, Lubna knows what she must do when she leaves …

This is a book that really tugs at your heartstrings. Wendy’s tale of love, hope, friendship, sacrifice and transcendence perfectly complemented by Daniel Egnéus’ powerful, sometimes sombre, scenes of the refugee camp dwellers left me with tears in my eyes and a lump in my throat.

Definitely one to add to the growing number of beautiful picture books featuring people displaced from their own home country seeking safe refuge elsewhere.

Moth

Moth
Isabel Thomas and Daniel Egnéus
Bloomsbury Children’s Books

Interestingly this is the second picture book introducing adaptation and natural selection to children I’ve seen in the past few weeks – could a new trend be starting. I was first taught about these scientific ideas with reference to the Peppered Moth, the particular example used in this story, when doing A-level zoology donkeys ages ago, and now they’re part of the KS2 science curriculum – quite a thought.

‘This is a story of light and dark. Of change and adaptation, of survival and hope.’ So says science writer, Isabel Thomas in the opening lines of her narrative, a narrative that seamlessly interweaves both science and social history.

In the nineteenth century almost all Peppered Moths had light grey patterned wings that blended with the tree trunks and branches it frequented.

With the coming of the Industrial Revolution also came air pollution blackening buildings, monuments and trees alike.

In this new environment, the light-coloured moths became easy to spot and were gobbled up by birds.
Darker forms of the insect were less conspicuous and more likely to escape predation and to breed whilst the lighter form became extremely scarce.

With the advent of the Clean Air Acts in the mid-twentieth century air pollution from smoke and soot was greatly reduced, trees and buildings were no longer stained. Now the dark moths were more conspicuous and less likely to breed successfully, though both forms of the moth can still be found.

All this, Isabel Thomas recounts in her dramatic, sometimes lyrical text that ends with hope. A hope which, as we hear in the final explanatory pages, might lead to other living things being able to adapt to the changes, including climate change, that we humans inflict upon our planet.

Daniel Egnéus’ illustrations are as lyrical as the text, embodying at once arresting beauty and veritas, and instilling a sense of awe and wonder. It’s rare to see such an eloquent science-focused book that also embraces the arts side of the curriculum.

The Thing

The Thing
Simon Puttock and Daniel Egnéus
Egmont
Among the picture books I like most are those that leave me with unanswered questions: this is such a one.
A Thing falls from the sky causing passers by to stop and puzzle over it: one asks, “What is it?” Another, “What does it do?” while a third merely suggests, “Maybe it just is.” A fourth thinks it beautiful.
Investigations as to whether or not it’s alive ensue. Tummler is unsure; Hummly – the third of the creatures wonders if it might be lonely and Roop, the fourth of their number, suggests they stay and keep it company. All four lie beside the Thing and fall asleep.

Next morning nothing has changed; various greetings are proffered, and the appropriateness of each commented upon; and all the while, the Thing remains, silent and unmoving. A shelter is planned and duly built for the four, but also for the visitor.

People come to view; and to question; some want one like it.
Before long, the Thing has become a visitor attraction and a theme park springs up; its fame goes worldwide and viral.

But then, almost inevitably, its presence proves controversial and divisive; some deem it ‘too strange’, others ‘worrisome’; some suspect it could be dangerous: it doesn’t belong so, they want it gone …
Then one day, gone it is – ‘un-fallen’ – completely vanished. Again opinions are split – some are sad, others pleased to see the back of it. Without the Thing, everything goes back to how it was; or rather, not quite everything.
Hummly never did identify it; Cobbler remains puzzled: Tummler and Roop are more upbeat and focus on the friendship that has formed between the four of them. The sun sets, the friends go their separate ways – albeit with promises to get together again soon; and that’s it.
Themes of caring for strangers and friendship emerge; but this multi-layered, enigmatic, thought-provoking picture book poses rather than answers questions. It is perfect for a community of enquiry style discussion with any age group from nursery up. Daniel Egnéus’ slightly Miróesque illustrations of a fantasy world, populated by whimsical, almost recognisable creatures leave further space for free thinking and speculation.
One to add to any book collection, I suggest.

I’ve signed the charter  

Raven Child and The Snow Witch

Raven Child and the Snow Witch
Linda Sunderland and Daniel Egnéus
Templar Publishing
Right from its textured sparkly cover, there’s something of a Russian folk tale feel to this magical, chilling story of love, loss and bravery, from debut picture book author, Linda Sunderland, and illustrator Daniel Egnéus.
Travel with me over frozen lakes and shimmery mountains and through the Forest of a Thousand Eyes to the Snow Garden, home of young Anya and her parents. Despite her chilly surroundings, Anya is kept warm by the dress of feathers woven for her by her friends the ravens whose language she has learned. On the first day of spring Anya’s mother sets out towards the glacier on a mission to collect gentian flowers, her daughter’s favourites, accompanied only by the ravens.

 

Anya and her father remain at home and after a while, the child falls sleep and dreams. She dreams of hearing her mother’s voice telling of her capture by the Snow Witch and this is followed by terrible news from one of the ravens that had gone with her mother.
Anya tends him and listens to his story. What he tells her has father and daughter setting out next morning on a frightening and dangerous journey together in search of Anya’s missing parent.

 

It turns out though, as the two learn during the course of their journey, that Anya’s mother is not the only person missing: a whole village’s children have been stolen away. Anxious not to waste time waiting for the villagers, Anya, accompanied only by the raven she’s named Broken Wing and Half Tail (a fox rescued on the way) travels on, until finally they come upon tell-tale signs that their search has brought them to the right place.

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Deep inside the glacier, Anya must confront her deepest fears; but is she a match for the Snow Witch? Can she rescue her mother and the children from the clutches of the evil woman …
Totally enchanting from cover to cover, this book will grip you right from its introductory verses to Anya’s final flight with the ravens. Daniel Egnéus’ haunting scenes of icy and snowy landscapes and Anya’s encounters with the animals she befriends are spell-bindingly beautiful.