Aaron Slater, Illustrator

Aaron Slater, Illustrator
Andrea Beaty and David Roberts
Abrams Books for Young Readers

It’s such a joy to see a child whose neurodiversity is celebrated in the latest of the Questioneers series.

The titular Aaron D. Slater, of this rhyming picture book, is based on Aaron Douglas, the African American painter, muralist, and graphic artist, who was a key figure in the Harlem Renaissance movement.

As a very young child there’s nothing Aaron loves more than to sit in the old garden swing and listen to others reading to him, and he aspires to be a writer of stories in the future.

First though he has to learn to read and to write, both of which on account of his dyslexia,
he finds challenging. ‘the words are just squiggles, and try as he might, even with help Aaron can’t get it right.’

Once he starts school, Aaron who also loves to draw, decides that rather than show his feelings, the best thing to do is to try to blend in with his classmates.

In his second year at school Aaron has a new teacher and she sets the class a story writing assignment. That night the boy spends all night attempting to write “a story. Write something true.” as his teacher has said.

Filled with fear the following morning, at Miss Greer’s behest he stands before his classmates and suddenly Aaron finds his voice: ‘beauty and kindness and loving and art / lend courage to all with a welcoming heart.’

So it is that he begins to find his own way of using visual images to create stories: ‘His art makes the difference. His art leads the way and helps him discover what he wants to say.’

This superb tale of creativity, acceptance and finding your own way to transcend insecurities and challenges, will be an inspiration to all youngsters, in particular those who like Aaron, struggle with reading and spelling. (The book is set in Dyslexie, a dyslexia-friendly typeface and David Roberts, creator of the stylish illustrations, tells in a final note how he himself has struggled with reading and spelling, making those superb spreads wherein Aaron’s images literally take flight, all the more powerful.)

Violet’s Tempest

Violet’s Tempest
Ian Eagleton and Clara Anganuzzi
Lantana Publishing

There’s a change in Violet’s world: what was once her giggly voice is now a whisper. Consequently when Mr Newland, her teacher, casts her as the mischievous Ariel in the school play, she’s beset by nerves and worries – suppose people laugh at her?

Back home, Violet’s loving, empathetic Nan offers her support and encouragement,

so too do her uncle Tony and his partner Uncle Sebastian.

Meanwhile the rehearsals continue apace at school where her teacher too is supportive and suggests Violet tries to imagine how Ariel would feel trapped and unable to escape.

The weeks pass and the day of the performance of The Tempest draws ever closer, with Nan continuing to inspire and embolden Violet as she practises her lines. Then comes the dress rehearsal: “Violet … think about how Ariel will feel once they’re free” Mr Newland tells her. The girl breathes deeply reminding herself of her Nan, and beginning with a whisper, starts playing her part.

When the big night arrives, Violet is beset by the inevitable racing heart and turbulent tummy but nonetheless as she steps out onto the stage, something amazing, indeed magical happens: Violet feels at peace with herself as Ariel

gliding and swooping across the stage and suddenly her voice changes from a soft whisper to a wonderful roar, much to the delight of her family and doubtless everyone else.

This is a wonderfully warm story of facing up to and over-coming your fears, as well as the power of a supportive family. Clara Anganuzzi’s sensitive illustrations capture effectively the characters’ feelings, making this book one to share and discuss with children either in the classroom or at home. (Despite how he looks in the story, I can’t help but think the author and teacher Ian Eagleton would be just as empathetic as Violet’s class teacher in a similar situation).

My Beautiful Voice

My Beautiful Voice
Joseph Coelho and Allison Colpoys
Frances Lincoln Children’s Books

From the duo who created the hugely moving If All the World Were… comes an inspirational story about finding your voice, literally as well as metaphorically.

Joseph Coelho’s narrator is a shy child who doesn’t talk at school, that is until a flamboyant, understanding new teacher, poetry lover Miss Flotsam, wields her transformative magic in the classroom.

She starts by sharing stories of her adventures, then moves on to sharing stories from books

and then the very personal form of her own poetry; and little by little one shy child begins to unleash that inner creativity we all have if only there’s somebody to nurture it.

A poem begins to form on the page, line by line and eventually, judging when the time is right, Miss Flotsam proffers its author an invitation to share that poem with the class …

With poet and playwright Joseph’s heartwarming, highly empathetic text and Allison’s superb, powerful illustrations of creativity at work,

with their splashes of neon-bright colour that capture so well the feelings of the two main characters, this is a perfect book to foster empathy in children. They’ll surely respond to the inherent themes of courage, resilience and determination in this heartfelt story of unlocking a child’s potential.

Every youngster deserves to have at least one teacher like the one portrayed here, during their early years of education.

Wolf Girl

Wolf Girl
Jo Loring-Fisher
Frances Lincoln Children’s Books

Sophy tries her best to fit in at school, even wearing her wolf suit, that helps her to feel fierce and perhaps a bit brave, but no matter what she does, her shyness takes hold, she just cannot find her voice and the other children laugh at her.

Safe at home once more, she lets her tears flow and then something amazing happens. Sophy is transported to a magical snowy woodland world and there she finds herself face to face with a wolf and her pup. The pup and girl romp together in the snow becoming friends

but as the snow falls faster the three seek shelter in a cave.

Once inside, the roaring Sophy suddenly hears is both without and within, and there before her is a huge bear. She’s terrified but somehow finds her inner wolf and sends the bear packing.

However, on reflection, she has a change of heart and realises that there’s another way to show her bravery, one that’s more important than any other …

Through both words and pictures, Jo has created a totally credible child in urban-residing Sophy; (indeed I’ve taught many Sophys in my time in the classroom) though she leaves her sensitive, lyrical illustrations to do much of the talking, speaking powerfully of the importance of drawing on your inner strength, finding your voice and friendship.

Definitely a book to share and discuss – with individuals, in the classroom or foundation stage settings especially.

One Girl

One Girl
Andrea Beaty and Dow Phumiruk
Abrams Books for Young Readers

A little girl sits outside her home one night looking somewhat dejected when all of a sudden from the sky there falls a book, aglow like a falling star. It lands close to her feet. ‘One Girl. One spark.’ On opening it a flaming flower springs forth from the pages, igniting a spark that the girl follows to a wonderful land of possibility. As she continues her allegorical journey her lonely world is transformed into a bright place full of wonder and opportunity.

So impassioned is the girl that she takes her book into school to share with her classmates. Then, further inspired, she takes a pencil and her imagination takes flight as her own, original words flow through her writing, creating a story she also shares with her class.

This kindles a spark in them too and they appear not only to find their own voices but to discover joy and wonder in reading.

Now they too have a burning desire to share their wonderful new discovery with others and thus they send forth

‘Words like comets through the night. / Blazing streaks of blinding light. / Seeking out the darkest dark …’ and thus, the story comes full circle and another girl’s life begins a transformation.

This beautifully written and illustrated book spoke so powerfully to me. I could have been that girl whose life was totally transformed by the magical power of books as was the child in Andrea Beaty’s spare rhyming text, a text wherein every word is chosen for maximum impact. In my case though it was thanks not to what happened in my school, but to my wonderful father who took me every Saturday to our local library and also enrolled me in a book club at a young age, so I received new magic every month. It’s also a spark that in my role as a teacher, I’ve always strived to ignite in every single child I’ve ever worked with, and will continue to do so ad infinitum …

Although there’s complete harmony between the words and pictures, Dow Phumiruk’s radiant illustrations convey much of the story illuminating with their details the transformational power of books, of writing and of education.

Leaving much to the reader’s interpretation, this is a book to share widely, to ponder upon, to discuss, and one hopes, one that will ignite that spark in all who are open to the might of their own potential.

A Different Dog

A Different Dog
Paul Jennings
Old Barn Books

When I taught children in KS2, Paul Jennings was one of our favourite authors. His short stories from Unreal, Uncanny, Unbelievable etc. and with younger audiences,The Cabbage Patch Fib, were always much requested both as class read alouds and for individual consumption.. I’ve not kept up with his output of late but was instantly drawn into this one and read it in a single sitting.
It’s a novella, quite unlike any Jennings’ I’ve read before and for such a short book, it spans a great many themes including poverty, loss, cruelty, bullying, trauma and its effects, determination and resilience.

The boy narrator is something of a loner; he doesn’t speak and is tormented by other children. The story opens with him dressing himself in his mother’s pink parka, adding a black bin bag on top and setting out to take part in a charity fun run, determined to win for his mother’s sake especially.

En route to the venue in treacherous weather, the boy sees a road accident and although he is unable to save the driver of the van, he is determined to see the dog to safety.

His subsequent journey, both physical and mental is gruelling yet ultimately uplifting.

Compelling and tersely written – every word counts –this is a book to hold you in its thrall even after you’ve put it aside. Geoff Kelly’s black and white illustrations are atmospheric and powerful.

This is a book that deserves to be shared and discussed widely in school, at home, by teachers and other educators, those who work as speech-language pathologists, (I was interested to learn that the author has worked in this field) and in particular, it offers rich potential for a ‘Community of Enquiry’ type discussion.

I’ve signed the charter  

Malala’s Magic Pencil

Malala’s Magic Pencil
Malala Yousafzai and Kerascoët
Puffin Books

Malala Yousafzai, the youngest ever recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize and campaigner for the rights of every child to attend school, has written an autobiographical account of her life designed for young audiences.
She tells of her childhood in Pakistan and uses a favourite television show she liked to watch about a boy with a magic pencil that he used to help other people and sometimes himself.
Gradually her desire for a magic pencil of her own translates as she grows into a discovery of the need to take real action. She learns that the troubles in her home village – children working to support their families and thus unable to go to school;

the gender inequalities and with the arrival of the (unnamed) Taliban, the ban on girls being educated, are things that need to be spoken about.
Malala starts writing and speaking out: “My voice became so powerful that dangerous men tried to silence me. / But they failed,” she states simply; the hospital band around her wrist being the only indication of all that she’s gone through.

Her quest for justice and for making the world a more peaceful place continues, a quest that has been joined by many others.
The final spread shows Malala giving her famous speech before the United Nations: “One child, one teacher, one book and one pen can change the world.

Here the force of her words and the message therein, that by finding your own voice, everyone can become a powerful force for positive change, resounds loud and clear.
The watercolour and ink illustrations of Malala’s daily life by Kerascoët (the joint pen name of the French illustrators, comics and animation artists Marie Pommepuy and Sébastien Cosset) give a wonderful sense of place; and the overlay of gold highlights her optimism and hope for making the world a fairer, better place.

Truly inspirational.
As the biographical notes at the end remind us, Malala has now become the youngest-ever UN Messenger of Peace: long may she continue her crucial work promoting the importance of education for all.
A picture book to share, reflect upon and talk about, again and again.

Pink Lion

Pink Lion
Jane Porter
Walker Books

Arnold has a dilemma: does he belong down at the waterhole with the flamingos – he’s the same colour and they’ve always made him feel like one of the family; or should be go with the lion pride? He certainly resembles the other lions albeit with a different colour fur, and they insist he should join them in their activities.

He decides to throw in his lot with the lions but quickly discovers that hunting, roaring and other leonine predilections really aren’t his thing. “I’m not a proper lion,” he tells them, “I think I’ll go back to my own family now.
But, a nasty surprise awaits him back home at the waterhole. A crocodile has taken up residence and it doesn’t want to share. That’s when Arnold suddenly summons up his inner roar.

Such is its might that the other lions are soon on the scene and in no time, their combined roars have seen off the intruder once and for all.
Let peachy life resume; in fact it’s even better than ever with some new cousins to share in the fun.

With themes of belonging, family, identity, being yourself and finding your voice, this zappy tale with its superbly expressive, predominantly candyfloss pink and yellow animal images standing out starkly against a white background, offers plenty to enjoy, to ponder upon and to discuss.

I’ve signed the charter