Hattie + Olaf

Hattie + Olaf
Frida Nilsson, illustrated by Stina Wirsén
Gecko Press

Hattie is now in her second year at school and since her very first day has been best friends with Linda. They’re both chatterboxes but whereas Hattie, like almost all the girls in her class, is totally horse mad, Linda thinks the whole horse fever stupid.

Told in the present tense, we discover that although Hattie wants a horse more than anything else in the entire world, what her father gets her is far less expensive, though it does have hooves and he brings it in a horse trailer: it’s a mangy old donkey named Olaf. That’s what happens when you wish on a ‘tired old longhorn beetle instead of a ladybird’ thinks Hattie.

Does Hattie rush into school and tell her classmates about the creature: no way! Instead she invents a tale about a new neighbour, owner of three white horses that she’s allowed to ride whenever she wants. Inevitably, she’s eventually found out and Hattie is ridiculed by her fellow horse enthusiasts. Moreover she has a punch up with Alfie getting her into BIG trouble,

and also falls out with Linda.

The days pass and by the time the Christmas holiday draws near, Hattie is anticipating a break without Olaf. But where has he gone and will he ever come back?

Splendidly funny, this quirky story showing how young Hattie navigates school and relationships, discovering what loyalty means, as well as those things that are of real importance, is a delight through and through; made all the more so by the scattering throughout of Stina Wirsén’s black and white illustrations.

It works equally well as a read aloud for those around Hattie’s age or, for slightly older, confident readers who will be amused by the protagonist’s innocent intensity.

Nook

Nook
Sally Anne Garland
Sunbird Books

This is a gentle, sweet tale that shows the empowering quality of the kindness of others.

Nook is a small, shy rabbit; she speaks little and prefers to stay in quiet spots with somewhere against which to press her back so she feels safe.

Her most favourite place of all is the deep hollow in an old elm tree, the ideal place from which to watch the other animals play. Try as they might to entice her out to join them, Nook prefers to keep her body feeling safe in her nook, but in spirit she’d be a participant in their games.

‘Nook’s place’ is what the hollow becomes known as, a place where other creatures know not to sit. Or rather, not quite all of them, for one day filling the hollow she finds …

The surly creature claims the space as his own, leaving Nook with welling tears and panic stricken.

Not for long however for her fear gives ways to surprise when the other animals stand behind her and speak out in her support. As they edge forward, the little rabbit feels protected and encouraged so that at last she feels confident enough to let them lead her away and play …

Do you think she continued so to do? You bet.

As it is with little animals so it is with young humans; some are outgoing and happy to be one of the crowd from the start, others – the introverts – need empathetic understanding and encouragement so they don’t stay forever on the sidelines.

Sally Anne Garland uses bold brush and coloured pencil strokes to imbue her animal characters with kindliness and humanity while also including in her outdoor scenes, lovely details from the natural world – a ladybird, seed heads, small flowers, for instance.

Definitely a book to share with foundation stage children, and individuals at home.

Nothing Scares Spider!

Nothing Scares Spider!
S Marendaz and Carly Gledhill
Little Tiger

Spider is a fearless creature and is ready to set off and explore the ‘Whole Wide Garden’. First though she bids farewell to her minibeast friends and in so doing hears of their worries at being left without their protector.

Spider leaves a web thread that can be pulled to call her back but only in emergencies and then off she goes. Almost immediately however comes a tug TWANG!

and back home she dashes only to discover that her return is seemingly, unnecessary.

Away she goes again, but whenever Spider herself is unknowingly in danger there comes a tug on the thread – just in the nick of time. Back she goes on several occasions merely stopping to admonish the thread puller before she sets out once more. Now Spider is really getting irate but YANK! On her return this time she comes face to face with Frightening Frog.

Now it just might be Spider’s turn to feel scared …

Fortunately for them all, Caterpillar offers some sage advice which is followed by some nifty work, first by Spider and then her friends. Thereafter comes a deal with their captive and an invitation from Spider.

Carly Gledhill’s vibrant illustrations show what the text doesn’t, enabling young listeners to relish being in the know along with the book’s creators in this tale of friendship and teamwork that will go down well at storytime. Youngsters will also enjoy the humorous touches such as spider’s assorted footwear and the characters’ changing expressions in Carly’s deceptively simple scenes.

Fox & Rabbit Celebrate

Fox & Rabbit Celebrate
Beth Ferry and Gergely Dudás
Amulet Books

This graphic novel style series is terrific fun and it’s reached the third book. The focus for the five interconnected stories is celebration and there’s so much to love about them, not least being the alliterative story titles.

First Fix, Fuss & Flies takes place just before Sparrow’s birthday and begins with Fox announcing confusingly for his pal Rabbit that he’s decided to change the middle letter of his name to i and henceforward he’s to be called Fix not Fox or even better Fix-it Fox. Well maybe for that day only; but before it ends there are a number of jobs that need fixing and other animals wanting to be part of i day. So, Fred becomes Frid, and Rabbit gets dubbed Ribbit.

All ends happily with the work done but I do wonder what Tortoise might have been called had he not rocked up right at the day’s end in time for dinner, asking his usual ‘What’d I miss?’

In Party, Pizza & Plans Rabbit and Fox resolve to make Sparrow’s birthday (the next day) ‘super-trooper special’, the best ever and that entails making him the biggest, yummiest pizza in the world. As they have no idea how to make such a thing, they’ll need help, but from whom? Where will all the ingredients come from and how will they go about cooking so huge a thing?

Make way for a new and fiery character in the third story, the addressing of whom requires speaking another language – or perhaps not.

Said new character also appears in Birthdays, Best Days & Best Friends, where he’s introduced, performs a key task, becomes part of the team and a great time is had by all; but guess who almost misses the entire thing.

Wonder, Wish & Wow involves memories of the celebration, a lot of guessing and a considerable amount of hard work; but is it all worth the effort? Does Sparrow’s birthday wish come true?
Love the ending, love the new character and of course, I totally love Tortoise.

Dudás’ brightly coloured, splendidly expressive illustrations together with Beth Ferry’s terrific text, almost entirely in speech bubbles, make this perfect for those just moving to chapter books.

A Cat Called Waverley

A Cat Called Waverley
Debi Gliori
Otter-Barry Books

Born in a park in Edinburgh, moggy Waverley has learned much about life, not least being how to make friends, his very best friend being Donald with whom he has supper every night for years.

Then one day Donald packs his bag and leaves his place of residence instructing Waverley to stay behind. One after another, all the cat’s other friends vanish from his life and unbeknownst to Donald who is at war,

his house is demolished.

What next for Waverley?

Off he goes to the railways station to wait for Donald. He waits and waits and it’s not long before people notice him, take photos and even bring him food, though he allows nobody to pick him up.

But despite the kindnesses shown by the station staff, nothing assuages his loneliness. Indeed Waverley misses his best pal more and more over the years.

Then one day as he makes his way down onto the platform, the cat hears, “Spare change. Spare a few pence for the homeless.” Surely that familiar voice belongs to his beloved Donald?

Debi’s story is written and illustrated with such empathy and sensitivity, it will surely bring a tear to your eye as you turn the pages of this book. Perhaps even more so when you read at the end that it’s about a real homeless war veteran for whom she wrote the book (as well as for all the countless other homeless people who share our world.)

What if, Pig?

What if, Pig?
Linzie Hunter
Harper Collins Children’s Books

The porcine character in this story is a thoroughly kind, endearing character that has endeared himself not only to his best pal Mouse, but also to a host of other animals. They all think themselves lucky to have him as a friend but what they don’t know is that he’s a panicker. So when he decides to plan a perfect party, it’s not long before he gets an attack of the ‘what ifs’. ‘What if a ferocious lion eats all the invitations or even the guests … ‘

What if nobody comes (or everyone does and has a dreadful time) or worst of all ‘What if no one really likes me at all?’

There’s only one thing to do – cancel the party, an idea in which he has his friend Mouse’s support.

Off go the two for a walk in the woods during which Mouse reassures his downhearted pal, ‘Things don’t stay grey for very long.’ And sure enough they don’t as what Pig doesn’t know is that Mouse has been instrumental in ensuring that they don’t, for Pig’s friends are more than ready to return the friendship they’ve been shown …and to share some secrets in response to Mouse’s ‘Maybe we’re more alike than we think.’

With its powerful themes, engagingly delivered, this is a terrific read aloud: the author/illustrator makes every single word count and her illustrations are a quirky delight – every one.

‘What if we all talked about our worries?’ provides the ideal starting point for a discussion on feelings, worries in particular, with youngsters either at home or in the primary classroom. If we want children to develop resilience, I suggest a copy in every foundation stage and KS1 class collection.

Twitch

Twitch
M.G.Leonard
Walker Books

Oh my goodness this is a totally immersive, brilliantly written, unputdownable story with a fascinating main character, Twitch.

Twelve year old Twitch is a passionate bird watcher, keeper of pigeons and pet chickens, and at certain times of the year, has swallows nesting in his bedroom. He’s kind-hearted but happy in his own company and bullied at school.

As the story starts, the summer holidays are about to begin and Twitch anticipates spending lots of time in Aves Wood where he’s constructed a hide.

Things don’t quite go as planned though for when he arrives at his hide he finds police everywhere. A potentially dangerous robber is on the run with the possibility that the missing millions from the bank haul are buried in the locality.

Can Twitch put his bird watching skills to use in tracking down the convict and even find the money?

Perhaps, with the help of some of the unexpected friends he makes, not least of whom is Jack, one of those who has bullied Twitch but actually has a kinder side that he sometimes keeps hidden. The way their friendship develops is superbly done but there are a host of other interesting characters too, several of whom aren’t what they appear.

Indeed, the entire story is full of surprises; and what a wealth of ornithological information is embedded in the plot, thanks largely to Twitch’s knowledge and passion.There’s plenty of suspense too: as the tale twists and turns; it’s hard to tell who is to be trusted and there’s a terrific finale, which one hopes indicates that we’re going to be hearing more of the newly formed club, The Twitchers.

How To Be Cooler Than Cool

How To Be Cooler Than Cool
Sean Taylor and Jean Jullien
Walker Books

Coming upon a pair of sunglasses unexpectedly immediately transforms Cat from ordinary to real cool with the ability to glide effortlessly backwards down the slide – or does it? Err … 

Cockatoo, next to come upon the sun-specs is instantly rendered supercool when he dons his find and dances along the see-saw – 

but not for long … and those shades are then caught by Pig.

‘Mr Totally Completely Cool’ is how he anticipates being seen as he stands posing nonchalantly on the swing until … 

and even he has to admit he doesn’t quite live up to his own expectation.

Disappointment, and realisation concerning the non-effect of the sunglasses reign; but then who should rock up but Chick clutching said article. 

The others warn him of their inability to make their feathered friend cool but is she bothered? No way, all she wants is some fun time with friends … And does it prove ‘cooler than cool’? What do you think? …

Assuredly this new story from the duo that gave us Hoot Owl, Master of Disguise is another splendidly silly slapstick offering that will surely have both children and adults laughing out loud. Be yourself is the message that emerges from this zany celebration of play and unconditional friendship.

Genie and Teeny Make a Wish

Genie and Teeny Make a Wish
Steve Lenton
Harper Collins Children’s Books

Steve Lenton has already earned a great reputation as an illustrator and now makes his first foray into early chapter books.

What a cracking little book he’s created in this first story of Grant a rather inept genie, and Teeny, a lost puppy. Teeny happens upon the teapot that’s become Grant’s place of residence since Queen Mizelda kicked him out of Genie World, lamp and all, on account of a birthday cake mishap.

Now on Earth, Grant wants to find a way to get back into the queen’s good books, but after his first night in his new terrestrial abode, he finds himself setting out on a ‘Teeny-owner finding mission’.

However as the two wander through the town, they are unexpectedly kidnapped (along with the teapot) by one Lavinia Lavender, a thoroughly nasty old woman with a penchant for purple and a cunning plan.

This female has her sights set on winning The Big Dancing Dog Show. Could this be a case of be careful what you wish for when Grant and his magic wishy-word are involved?

Perhaps the little genie can save the day one way or another …

With Steve’s smashing illustrations at every page turn

and his chatty narrative style with its reader-involving elements, what more can a young solo reader (or a class of eager listeners) ask? Maybe just the step-by-step ‘How to draw Grant the Genie’ tutorial at the back of the book.
Bring on the second instalment.

Mouse & Mole: The Secret of Happiness

Mouse and Mole: The Secret of Happiness
Joyce Dunbar and James Mayhew
Graffeg

What better to start the latest in this charming series of stories about the friendship between two endearing woodland animals than with A Good Read. There’s a slight problem though, for Mouse’s constant giggles and Mole’s failure to get himself comfortable, not to mention having an attack of hiccups

followed by an itch is, let’s say, not conducive to getting lost in a book. Can the two find a solution and finally give their reading matter their undivided attention?

This Way and That sees Mole donning his walking boots and setting out for a walk. But what is intended as a happy-go-lucky stroll in the spring air turns into an exceedingly irritating series of errands for Mouse that send him hither and thither

until eventually, Mole has his very own point to make as he sallies forth YET AGAIN!

In the third and final tale, Mole tries desperately to remember the contents of his previous night’s dream wherein he knew The Secret of Happiness. This elusive thing that sort of ‘bubbled up, … sort of billowed, … sort of bloomed from somewhere deep inside me’ has Mole searching around all day until his friends arrive for tea. Can they perhaps assist him in finding the answer to the puzzle? …

As always, the gentle humour in Joyce Dunbar’s thought-provoking story telling is given a delightfully nostalgic feel thanks to James Mayhew’s charmingly elegant illustrations. Whether as bedtime reading for little ones or read solo by older children, these are small literary gems.

Fox & Rabbit / Isadora Moon Meets the Tooth Fairy

Fox & Rabbit
Beth Ferry and Gergely Dudas
Amulet Books

Unlikely friends, Fox and Rabbit star in five short interconnected stories, presented graphic novel style, that are perfect for readers just embarking on chapter books. The contrasting personalities of the protagonists is brought out wonderfully in the events – Rabbit being rather anxious and Fox the complete opposite (albeit with a predilection for words beginning with the letter F). However they both have a fondness for adventure and surprises but no matter what they’re doing they thrive on discovering the kind of everyday magic that readers will love.

In the first story, lying back observing the clouds leads them to the fair where Rabbit wins a prize; that prize sends them off on their next adventure – on the beach. There, eventually Rabbit overcomes his fear of the ocean and everything therein. What they find in a bottle leads Rabbit to risk a ‘zinger’ to reach Surprise Island; but is it a misnomer? It certainly provides a wonderful opportunity: some horticultural pursuits occur in the 4th story and Rabbit demonstrates a distinct lack of self control. But what happens when they grow a lemon tree? That you will have to find out for yourself but like their previous adventures a certain Turtle turns up at the end asking ‘What’d I miss?’

But new solo readers will certainly miss enormous fun from both Beth Ferry’s well chosen words and Gergely Dudas’ adorable pictures if they don’t give this engaging demonstration of true friendship, a whirl.

Isadora Moon Meets the Tooth Fairy
Harriet Muncaster
Oxford Children’s Books

Is this really the thirteenth book featuring the fang-tastically adorable Isadora Moon? Despite growing a bit older she shows no signs of losing her magical allure.

As the story starts Isadora is about to lose one of her teeth. But being half fairy, half vampire, should she leave said tooth under her pillow for the tooth fairy as her mum wants, or have it framed per dad’s wishes? He also wants her to accompany him to the vampire dentist to learn how to keep her fangs ‘polished to perfection’.

On the night the fang comes out Isadora is paid a visit by Mignonette, a tiny mouse on her first tooth fairy mission. Now she faces an even bigger dilemma …

Could a visit to dad’s dentist help her make up her own mind?

Maybe with the help of Mignonette, Isadora can instigate a tooth tradition of her very own.

No matter what she does, Isadora Moon’s countless fans will certainly delight in her latest adventure.

Gerald Needs a Friend

Gerald Needs a Friend
Robin Boyden
Frances Lincoln Children’s Books

Guinea pig Gerald is a loner and fanatical about his routine. His entire world is his garden wherein he spends most of his days nurturing his flowers, fruit and vegetables.

Come 5 o’clock he goes indoors and has tea, reads twenty pages of his book and at 7pm he retires to bed: a risk-taker he most certainly is not.

One morning he heads off into town with his shopping bags and is surprised to discover a new stall run by two lively mice. The mice introduce themselves and for the rest of the day, after some initial hesitancy, Gerald experiences lots of fun exciting things

and thanks to Marcy and Marcel, has the time of his life until …

That night he lies awake in bed contemplating the day and next morning …

Robin Boyden’s Gerald most certainly discovered that by stepping out of the comfort zone of his hitherto fulfilling life, the world had a lot more to offer, the most important thing being friendship.

The illustrations are terrific – hugely expressive and full of amusing details to pore over. A book to share with KS1 classes (make sure you allow time to explore each spread), as well as individuals and small groups.

Amira’s Suitcase / Dandy & Dazza

Recent hardcover publications from New Frontier Publishing – thanks for sending them for review

Amira’s Suitcase
Vikki Conley and Nicky Johnston

Set in what looks like a shanty town, this is a lovely story about what happens when a little girl makes an unlikely and unexpected discovery.

What is poking out from the corner of an old suitcase? Amira is intrigued to find a tiny seedling while searching for a hiding place. She makes friends with the little plant, tending it carefully: ‘Amira smiled at the sprout. She felt something blossom deep inside her.’

She takes the suitcase outside into the sunlight and is reminded of a pear tree she misses. The following day she takes her friend Nala to see the sprout and for her too, a memory is triggered.

When she comes on a subsequent visit Nala brings something with her, something tiny that she drops into the suitcase. News of the enterprise spreads among the other children and they too add seeds to the case.

These thrive on the children’s tender care and a small green world is the result. Eventually the plants grow too big for their container and then it’s time to find them a new home.
Sensitively told and beautifully illustrated (each spread reflects the inherent warmth of the text), this hopeful tale of kindness and friendship is just right for sharing with foundation stage listeners.

Dandy & Dazza
Mike Dumbleton and Brett Curzon

Meet dogs Dandy and Dazza. Dandy is well-behaved – a pampered pooch no less while Dazza is a mongrel – a rule-breaking, go crazy mongrel that can barely wait to get off his lead. One day they encounter one another at the park and despite their differences, a friendship is forged. To his pal’s surprise, Dandy discovers the fun in being a little bit crazy from time to time, while Dazza learns to keep his super-abundance of energy under control – sometimes at least.

With high energy illustrations that bring out the contrasting personalities of the two creatures this is an entertaining book about friendship and difference canine style.

Fletcher and the Caterpillar

Fletcher and the Caterpillar
Julia Rawlinson and Tiphanie Beeke
Graffeg

For those, like this reviewer, meeting the main protagonist for the first time, Fletcher is an inquisitive little fox, and a bit of a worrier. His new story starts in the spring with the observant vulpine noticing that while everything else in the wood is growing, there’s one green leaf that is actually getting smaller. On investigation, he discovers a tiny caterpillar having a nibble. Friendly as always Fletcher, with the aid of his other animal friends, tries to involve the caterpillar in such activities as racing, boating

and hide and seek, but all the caterpillar is interested in, is munching.

One day though, the munching stops; the little creature is still and silent. Fletcher’s Mum reassures him that it’s normal caterpillar behaviour

but the cub is still concerned for its well-being, watching over it until he falls fast asleep.

Overnight a change occurs mystifying Fletcher but again his Mum tells him it’s what caterpillars do and soon he’ll have a wonderful surprise.

After a long, long wait, sure enough he does.

With Julia Rawlinson’s sweet, gentle nature narrative she paints a picture of friendship and of spring; a picture that is echoed in Tiphanie Beeke’s soft, textured, sun-infused art, which shows so well the colours and joys of its seasonal setting and one of nature’s wonderful mysteries.

Storm Dragon

Storm Dragon
Dianne Hofmeyr and Carol Thompson
Otter-Barry Books

Faced with the furious wind and rain buffeting their tiny seaside cottage, Grandpa suggests it’s the ideal time to go on a storm dragon hunt. Armed with shield and spy glass off they go TRIP! TRAP! STOMP! STAMP! down the rickety walkway and onto the beach.

Following the dragon footprints, Grandpa is in playful mood as he stops to collect dragon’s paws and claws.

Then on they stamp through the ‘dragon’s jewels’ skittering, scattering, clattering and splattering until again Grandpa stops. Now he’s found a ‘dragon baby’, which can mean only one thing – the close proximity of its mother. They can both smell her as she puffs towards them. There’s only one thing to do: climb into that pirate ship and continue the dragon watch from on board.

She’s definitely there and coming ever closer … leaving the adventurers no choice but (with a nod to We’re Going on a Bear Hunt) to retrace their path …

all the way back home.

With Carol Thompson’s splendidly spirited illustrations accentuating the intergenerational relationship and the power of imaginative play, and a smashing read aloud text, this is a MUST to share with foundation stage listeners. They will delight in joining in, first with the wonderfully alliterative sounds and then, on a second or third reading acting out the trip-trapping, stomp stamping, harrumphing and galumphing, jumping, tramping, climbing into the boat, raising the spyglass and then finally clatter and splatter, running all the way back, pushing open the door and hiding from …

The Little Pirate Queen

The Little Pirate Queen
Sally Anne Garland
New Frontier Publishing

Meet young Lucy who makes a weekly voyage on her rickety raft in search of Far Away Land, a place where nobody before has ever set foot.

Over the weeks her raft has become increasingly dilapidated, despite her efforts at repairing the damage; but nonetheless, Lucy’s sailing skills have improved. Even so her craft is no match for the speed of the other children’s boats and that makes her a little downcast. To lift her spirits, she imagines herself a brave ‘Pirate Queen’ which helps, but only sometimes.

One morning a strong wind blows up and an enormous wave leaves Lucy lost and alone on stormy waters.

Alone that is until she spies four other children clutching pieces of wood and rope, desperately trying to keep afloat. Lucy succeeds in hauling them aboard her frail raft

and proceeds to give them lessons in rowing and sail repairs. Come nightfall they’re all able to enjoy Lucy’s tales and songs of lost treasure and pirates.

But will they ever reach that Far Away Island? …

An enjoyable tale of a resilient adventurer, with themes of resourcefulness, empowerment, friendship and more. Young would-be voyagers around the age of Lucy especially, will love this, particularly those wonderful dramatic seascapes.

Beauty and the Bin

Beauty and the Bin
Joanne O’Connell
Macmillan Children’s Books

For Laurie Larksie things seem to have improved since she started at secondary school. It’s sufficiently far from their home not to invite her new friends around, something she’s anxious to avoid as her eco-warrior parents are, despite their best intentions, an embarrassment to her. Their house is also a hydroponic growing farm, and her mum and dad involve both Laurie and her younger sister, Fern, in salvaging food from supermarket bins despite Laurie’s determination not to become as she says, ‘Garbage Girl’. While she’s happy to go along with most of what her parents do, they refuse to listen to how she feels about this particular activity. After all she just wants to fit in – buy herself some new clothes, have hot chocolate after school with her friends Zainab and Emilia, and use social media.

When an inter-school competition for young entrepreneurs is announced, Laurie sees it’s a great chance to showcase her homemade skin and beauty products that use only natural ingredients – Beauty in the Kitchen – and before you can say ‘enterprise’ she finds she’s been approached by Charley (the school’s uber-cool girl) as her partner.

Before long though, conflicts of interest begin to arise: Laurie’s family want her to be fully involved in the fast approaching March4Climate protest, so she has to try and juggle family commitments with the competition, while not losing her two best friends.

Can Laurie manage to stay true to her principles and continue working with somebody who thinks she’s always right? And who will eventually win that competition?

The author’s inspiration for her thought-provoking, humorous debut book came after spending a year as a journalist writing about food waste, so she really knows and feels strongly about waste and sustainability. Alongside these themes though she explores the personal journey of her chief protagonist, Laurie, as she learns what real friendship means.
(Also included are some beauty recipes, and ‘top tips’ from Laurie on how to avoid wasting food.)

Strongly recommend for upper KS2 readers and those around Laurie’s age just finding their feet at secondary school.

The House at the Edge of Magic

A House at the Edge of Magic
Amy Sparkes
Walker Books

Life is tough for young Nine: it certainly doesn’t give her strawberries. She spends her time on the streets stealing whatever she can to pay back Pockets, the Fagin like character who has sheltered her since her infancy in the Nest of a Thousand Treasures.

One day when attempting to steal a woman’s handbag, a tiny house-shaped ornament falls from it. Nine stuffs the object in her satchel and flees to a safer place to examine it more closely. As she strokes it imagining what life might be like to live in such a place, she touches the door knocker Bizarrely it emits a buzzing sound and the whole thing becomes a large, higgledy-piggledy house.

Thereafter the situation becomes progressively surreal for she’s pulled inside the house and she meets first a weird troll named Eric, shortly after to be joined by a strange wizard introducing himself as “Flabbergast. High Wizard, Chair of the Tea Tasters Committee, World Hopscotch Champion 1835”, and a spoon, aptly named Doctor Spoon, clad in a kilt and brandishing a sword. She learns that the three have been trapped in the house under a curse for years. They request Nine’s help to break said curse and set them free. For her help she’s offered a priceless gem.

At first she leaves without agreeing but then later realises that she’ll be far better off returning to the cursed house and helping its occupants. With the possibility of a new life, back she goes. Before you can say “cup of tea” it’s revealed that they have only till the clock strikes fifteen to discover the magic words to break that curse or face extinction. No pressure then.

Deliciously quirky with lots of humour, this story will definitely keep readers turning the pages till its wonderful finale. The magic house residents are brilliant fun. I love that feisty Nine finds solace in books she ‘acquires’ thanks to a genial librarian and that despite being desperate to escape her life on the streets, she acts for the greater good.There are some terrific bit-part players too.

Whether read solo, or aloud to a primary class, this will leave audiences wanting more – this reviewer included.

Friendship / Calmness

Friendship
Calmness

Helen Mortimer and Cristina Trapanese
Oxford University Press Children’s Books

These are two additions to the Big Words for Little People series: the first explores what being a good friend really means and the second presents various elements that are associated with feeling calm.
Each of the first eleven spreads takes a key word (or two) exploring it through an engaging scene and an explanatory sentence or two.

For instance part and parcel of Friendship is Respect and that entails accepting and showing respect towards differences.

Share offers examples of what you might share with friends – memories, ideas, treats and especially, time.
The penultimate spread is an affirmation of Friendship itself and then comes a spread aimed at adult sharers giving ten ideas of how to get the most from the book and a final glossary.

Calmness has spreads on quiet, feeling safe, breathing,

what to do about worries, focus, time – ‘Something as simple as walking gives you time to watch and listen while you move.’ I think that’s something we’ve all appreciated during the past year.

Other ideas suggested to induce that sometimes elusive sense of calm are to Pause, Imagine, ways to ‘get past your angry feelings’, Balance and to take a Softly, softly approach.
Calmness also ends within ideas and a glossary.

Both these engaging little books are well worth adding to an early years collection, as well as for sharing with little ones at home. Cristina Trapanese uses a different theme to illustrate each one. Friendship shows children engaged in a variety of art and craft activities while Calmness has an appropriate outdoor setting reflecting the important role the natural world plays in inducing calm. Both contain a wealth of language learning potential.

Mouse & Mole: A Fresh Start

Mouse & Mole: A Fresh Start
Joyce Dunbar and James Mayhew
Graffeg

This is the fifth book in the enchanting series that stars close friends Mole and Mouse. Now though, in the first of the three stories, the two decide that perhaps they’ve become just a little too close and are taking one another for granted. In order for their friendship not to pall they agree to avoid one another for an entire day, however challenging that might be. Then their friendship can start all over again.
Mole insists the manner of Mouse’s execution of the plan is kept to himself.
The following morning Mouse receives an invitation to visit Hedgehog for elevenses so, making sure to avoid Mole, off he goes leaving a note as to his whereabouts. Mole meanwhile is late to rise – as usual and on discovering no sign of Mouse, is disturbed.

An exhaustive search of their home reveals no sign of his best pal. Distraught at the possibility that Mouse has forsaken him and found a new friend, he drives off to pay a call on several other of the woodland animals leaving a message for Mouse with each. The last call he pays is to …

Hip-Dip-Dip sees Mole spoilt for choice when Mouse decides to buy his bestie the much-wanted toy sailing boat he’s seen in Hare’s toyshop window. Mole’s original longing was for a blue boat with a white sail but when they discover there are other possibilities, Mole gets into such a tizzy that they leave without making a purchase.

The following day is perfect for boat sailing on the pond so it’s back to the toyshop where Hare informs them that a mystery buyer has bought the blue boat over the phone. Oh dear! Now what will happen …

In the final tale A Bolt from the Blue, the two friends get caught in a thunderstorm. With the possibility of a lightning strike, should they or shouldn’t they take shelter under a large tree? Or is it better to make a dash for home. Perhaps neither is the best way to deal with a sudden downpour, if so what will Mouse and Mole decide to do?

The magic still holds good in these latest short stories; surprises, warmth and gentle humour abounds and there’s that characteristic element of surprise in each episode which brings such delight to readers and listeners alike. James’ delectably detailed illustrations combined with Joyce’s seemingly effortless storytelling offer a perfect snuggle up on a dark evening story share delight.

Amelia Fang and the Trouble with Toads

Amelia Fang and the Trouble with Toads
Laura Ellen Anderson
Egmont Books

This has been such a terrific series with smashing characters and I’m sad to learn that it’s the last of the Amelia Fang books; so too will countless young fans of the stories.

In this adventure, (I was laughing out loud by page three) we get to meet Vincent, Amelia’s very stinky, very snotty and very bothersome baby brother. As the story opens Amelia is excitedly preparing to join the gang of friends at Grimaldi’s birthnight celebrations. But then she learns that her mother Countess Frivoleeta (along with others in the household) has been struck down by Frankenflu and if Amelia is to go to the birthnight party then so too must her revolting little brother. A frustrating dilemma, but that much wanted time for herself is about to be sacrificed for the greater good.

Fortunately, Squashy, Grimaldi and Florence are on hand to help with the babysitting but it’s not long before Vincent has done a vanishing act, rolling himself into a mysterious, somewhat threatening land; the place to which all squished toads go. Unless he’s to be toadally and irrevocably lost, Amelia and friends must go after him.

Fortunately they have recourse to that pop-up wardrobe of Grimaldi’s so they’re able to don toad disguises and head to somewhere completely off limits unless you ARE a toad.

Moreover, toads don’t fart …

There’s SO much to relish in this tale: that the friends follow a snot trail; how Amelia truly loves her baby brother despite everything; the way the friends pull together as a supportive team no matter what, sharing their feelings at just the right time; Florence prancing and pirouetting across that cave floor; the terrific character that is Furgus; how much Amelia and other characters learn about themselves and each other during the course of the story, not forgetting, Tagine’s shoe revelation.

And the ending is just perfect – except that it IS the end. Except for Amelia’s favourite memories gallery which is a fangtastic finale.

A complete triumph both visually and verbally for Laura. I can’t wait to see what she’s got coming next.

The Bear and the Moon

The Bear and the Moon
Matthew Burgess and Cátia Chien
Chronicle Children’s Books

A little bear wakes after a long sleep and spies something floating in the sky. At first it’s just a red dot, but as it comes closer he notices more; ‘red as a berry / and round like the moon / with a silver string drifting brightly in the breeze.’ Being of an investigative nature the bear goes to discover what he can. The two are soon engaged in a pas de deux

lasting till evening when the bear stops to eat and then settles down with his companion in the glowing moonlight.

Next morning though the two are soon up and about once more with bear rolling, sitting and cavorting with his new friend until … disaster. An over-enthusiastic bear hug ends the balloon’s life rendering it a scattering of red pieces, one attached to the silver string.

As evening comes Bear is left devastated. And full of guilt: ‘Bad bear, / he thought. / Bad, bad bear.’ With the night though as he swims miserably across the creek,

comes another gift from the sky to bring comfort and cheer as it ‘reached down to him and gently stroked his fur.’ And all is well once more: loving memories endure …

Written in spare, gentle words, Matthew Burgess’ poetic allegorical text is both potent and poignant, highlighting the power of friendship, and of loss. In artist Cátia Chien he has the perfect collaborator. Her mixed media illustrations with those changing viewpoints and colours, are sublime, and finely tuned to the changing moods of bear, from the delight of discovery right through to mourning and finally, acceptance (of self and of loss), and healing. Simply, beautiful.

The New Girl

The New Girl
Nicola Davies and Cathy Fisher
Graffeg

Softly spoken, sensitively rendered and enormously moving is Nicola and Cathy’s latest picture book narrated by a member of the class into which the new girl arrives ‘wrapped up like a parcel’ and not understanding a word that was said by her classmates.

Almost unbelievably, the newcomer is set apart to eat her lunch on account of its ‘funny’ smell and as school ends she walks away quite alone. This cruel behaviour continues day after day as winter arrives bringing with it dark and dreariness.

Then one day into that dark something wonderful appears on the teacher’s desk.

Each day after that another one appears somewhere in the classroom bringing with it feelings of warmth and cheer until the beautiful objects stop coming.

At their teacher’s suggestion, the children start trying to make their own paper flowers, the narrator unsuccessfully … until the new girl shows her how.

Flower making isn’t all that’s learned in that classroom on that particular day though; so too is a new language and the importance of accepting difference, of understanding and of friendship …

Cathy Fisher’s illustrations are startlingly realistic, full of feeling and atmosphere – the ideal complement to Nicola’s text.

Primary classrooms should definitely add this to their collections.

The Bear, the Piano and Little Bear’s Concert

The Bear, the Piano and Little Bear’s Concert
David Litchfield
Frances Lincoln Children’s Books

This is truly a very special book but sadly, the final book in the outstanding Bear and the Piano trilogy. Having so said, it really is a sublime finale.

The book begins with a recap of Bear’s wonderful achievements in his musical career and telling how he’d found it hard at first to settle back into forest life after the buzz of the city, until along came his daughter, Little Bear.

We see the two having a wonderful time together with Little Bear learning so many new things.

One day she makes a discovery and asks Bear what the thing is that she’s come across.

Then little by little her father recounts all his adventures in the city, talking of his days in the band. Little Bear senses his sadness and that evening comes up with a plan that she hopes will cheer him up.

Will Little Bear’s idea succeed in enabling Bear to rediscover that magic of making music: perhaps with enthusiasm reignited he can even pass on that passion to his daughter?

David Litchfield’s illustrations are as always absolutely stunning, full of incredible detail and texture; and his colour palette is in places, appropriately dazzling.

The story too is pitch perfect for reading aloud at anytime, anywhere: I’d love to gather some youngsters together and share it in a forest setting. Indeed, the book is exquisite in every way and a must have.

All’s Happy that Ends Happy

All’s Happy that Ends Happy
Rose Lagercranz, illustrated by Eva Eriksson
Gecko Press

I suspect that a great many young readers will be sad to learn that this, the 7th book, concludes the My Happy Life series featuring Dani, her family and friends, in particular, her bestie Ella.

The story opens at the start of the Easter holiday without Dani. She’s been off school for seven weeks. But where is she?

Certainly not at home, as visiting classmates discover; nor has she as others assume, gone to stay with Ella. Even she doesn’t know where Dani is, though she’s determined to find out. To that end, Ella writes a letter which she puts in a bottle and despite having been left in charge of little sister Miranda, runs to the cliff to toss her message into the sea. Having done so she goes back to the house but there’s no Miranda.

Frightened of the consequences when her mother returns, Ella goes into hiding too.

Dani herself eventually appears in the seventh chapter; she’s in hospital still recovering from the pheumonia that was a result of her failed attempt to visit Ella in the previous book.

In the eighth chapter there’s a lovely proposal attempt from Danis’ dad to Sadie, leading into much ado about a wedding in Dani’s head.

The real thing does happen though not quite in the same way as she’d imagined but still in Rome; it’s only to be a small affair and without Ella as a guest.

Meanwhile the Italian side of Dani’s family are eager to introduce her to the sights of the city

Once the wedding celebrations are over, there’s more exciting news. But will Dani ever get to see Ella; that always seems to be uppermost in her mind, no matter what.

There are more surprises in store before the end, but as readers know, Dani is determined, resilient and has a firm belief in happiness.

This book is longer than any of the previous ones but Rose Lagercrantz’s terrific, gently humorous text is conveniently broken up into seven parts, each comprising short chapters with plenty of Eva Eriksson’s utterly charming, splendidly expressive black-and-white illustrations throughout.

A smashing solo read, but also a lovely read aloud.

Hello Friend! / Bunny Braves the Day

Hello Friend!
Rebecca Cobb
Macmillan Children’s Books

It’s the mismatch between what is said by the small girl narrator and what is shown in Rebecca Cobb’s enchanting, warm illustrations that make this book such a winner.

From the start the girl enthusiastically shares everything during playtime both indoors and out, at lunchtime, during quiet times and noisy ones.

What is evident though is that the boy on whom she focuses all this sharing attention is going to take much longer to feel ready to share in the well-intentioned advances of the little girl.
However, a friendship does develop …

and it’s one where both parties are equally enthusiastic about their togetherness.

This is a gorgeous story to share with youngsters especially those starting school; it offers plenty to reflect on and talk about, both at home and in the classroom.

Bunny Braves the Day
Suzanne Bloom
Boyds Mills Press

It’s Bunny’s first day of school but he wants nothing of it: he doesn’t know anybody, supposes nobody likes him; his socks are too short, his shorts too long and he can’t tie his shoes. Oh woe!

Big sister cajoles him with plenty of empathy and ideas,

but with a hurting tummy, it’s decided … ‘I’d better not go … Because I don’t even know how to read!’

After more loving comments, ‘Sometimes you just feel like crying before you feel like trying. You’ll find a friend. Not all shoes use laces. And teachers love to teach reading…’ and listing things little bro. CAN do, he’s almost ready to surrender but not before one last try, ‘Mom will miss me.’ (Said parent has uttered not a word in all this, though she does take a photo).

Finally, it’s time to face up to the inevitable and once more it’s down to big sis. to deliver the final upbeat reassurance at the classroom entrance.

The entire text takes the form of the dialogue between the bunny siblings –blue for the new boy and red for older sister; while Suzanne Bloom’s watercolour and pencil illustrations highlight the feelings of the two characters beautifully.

Just right to share with little ones, especially in families where there’s likely to be starting school nerves; or with children in a nursery setting.

Tiny T. Rex and the Very Dark Dark

Tiny T. Rex and the Very Very Dark
Jonathan Stutzman and Jay Fleck
Chronicle Books

Tiny T. Rex and his buddy Pointy are spending their very first night under the stars, and the adorable dinosaur narrator, all the while clutching tight his squishy bear Bob, regales us with their nocturnal experiences. When outside, we hear, ‘the dark is VERY dark’ and with no ‘nighty-lights to turn on’ there may very well be Grumbles and Nom-bies at large.

Mum assures her little one that even in the dark, there will always be a light shining somewhere. He though is far from convinced. He and Pointy however, have a secret being brave plan. This means building a hiding fort

to contain snacks and themselves but even then, feeling hidden isn’t what happens. So, brain-protecting helmets are necessary although a proper fit is a requisite

as are the lamps from indoors and the strings of coloured lights with which they deck the trees and their tent. At last everything is ready; now let those Crawly creeps and Nom-bies come …

That brightness however, lasts only briefly for a fuse blows and they’re plunged into total ‘very dark dark’ blackness.

Now what can they do: everyone is scared but can they summon up all their courage, open their eyes and look hard – very, very hard …

There’s plenty to see and delight in here in this reassuring tale, not least what those Grumbles and Nom-bies actually are.

What’s needed for dark-fearful little ones is a super story bedtime tale such as this one, then a big hug, followed by lights out and imaginations temporarily switched off. Most definitely, it’s another winner from the Stutzman and Fleck team.

Lenny Makes a Wish

Lenny Makes a Wish
Paula Metcalf
Oxford University Press

I wonder how far into this heartwarming story it will be before youngsters guess the identity of the ‘fish’ Lenny rabbit comes upon while out picking flowers for his mum one spring day.

Needing a little rest from his activity, Lenny sits down beneath a tree and spots a ‘funny little fish / as black as black an be’

That the little creature is all alone makes the young rabbit feel sad and he inquires about the whereabouts of the fish’s parents. What he learns is that a storm has separated her from her family.

Having pondered upon what to do, Lenny offers himself as a friend but then realises that a fish out of water is unable to breathe. Back into the water goes Fishy rapidly followed by Lenny but what is immediately evident is 

Happily his mum arrives in the nick of time to rescue her little one and give him a warning. Then it’s a very sad Lenny that bids farewell to his fishy friend and so she doesn’t forget him, he presents her with his blue scarf.

Time passes; Fishy appreciates her gift but suddenly tears start  welling up.

Lenny meanwhile also misses Fishy and one bright, clear night he makes a wish upon the biggest star in the sky.

The sunny summer days come around and all of a sudden while Lenny and Mum are having their lunch,

they receive a surprise visitor wearing a blue scarf.

Has Lenny’s wish perhaps been granted?

The combination of Paula Metcalf’s rhythmic, rhyming text and gently humorous illustrations with their wealth of of wonderful details, makes for a great read aloud. It’s a lovely celebration of kindness, and friendship against the odds as well as offering an unobtrusive lesson in natural history.

The Caveman Next Door / Twelve Days of Kindness

The Caveman Next Door
Tom Tinn-Disbury
New Frontier Publishing

Penny’s street is perfectly ordinary until a caveman moves in next door to her. He does little but grunt by way of communication, is scantily clad and his only furniture is made from sticks or stones.
Thinking he seems a little lost, Penny decides to befriend him and takes him on a tour of the town starting with the library where he receives a less than welcoming reception.

No matter where they go Ogg seems to manage to annoy somebody or embarrass Penny; seemingly he just doesn’t fit in.

But then, having seen inside Ogg’s cave with its wonderful mural documenting all their adventures, Penny has a great idea;

Ogg will visit her school.
After an initial setback, the headteacher recognises that in Ogg he has not only an interesting artist but someone who can educate his pupils about the natural world.

Tom Didsbury’s fanciful story of friendship and finding a place to fit in, with its wonderfully quirky illustrations will delight and amuse young listeners.

Twelve Days of Kindness
Cori Brooke and Fiona Burrows
New Frontier Publishing

When Holly realises that new girl Nabila is having trouble making friends among her classmates she decides something needs to be done to help her.

Both girls are picked for the school soccer team but despite this her fellow team- mates are not showing any signs of welcoming Nabila. With just twelve days left before the first match, the girls still haven’t gelled as a team.

Nabila and Holly devise a plan: for every remaining day they will do something good and kind for the team and gradually not only does the team come together

but the “Twelve Days of Kindness’ is a winning formula.

An effective lesson about acceptance, welcoming strangers, friendship and of course, kindness, beautifully delivered in Cori Brookes’ straightforward narrative and Fiona Burrows’ powerful pictures of the girls is one to share and discuss in lower classrooms especially.

Madame Badobedah / A Sea of Stories / Zippel: The Little Keyhole Ghost

Madame Badobedah
Sophie Dahl and Lauren O’Hara
Walker Books

This is a rather longer than usual picture book story of an unusual older woman and the young narrator, Mabel.

Mabel lives at The Mermaid Hotel an establishment managed by her parents. She’s an only child with a fertile imagination and a thirst for adventure and here she acts as narrator of the tale of what happens when a certain rather unusual guest arrives. Not only does the woman have twenty-three bags, two large trunks, lots of jewels and a dressing table but also two cats, two dogs and a tortoise, oh! and a penchant for toffees too.

So high-handed is her manner that Mabel takes an instant dislike to her, naming her Madame Badobedah and deciding she’s a villain. Donning her large raincoat, hat and sunglasses the girl becomes Mabel the Spy.

One Saturday morning the strange guest invites Mabel into her room for tea.

We learn that Madame Badobedah had long ago come across the sea on a big ship to escape war and had once been a ballerina – hence the jewelled tiara.

Gradually as this rather unlikely friendship blossoms we learn more about Madame Badobedah – she’s ready to apologise when she thinks it’s due, enjoys visiting the mermaids,

and also has some secrets that she wants to keep to herself. I love the way Sophie Dahl’s narrative gradually reveals things about the lonely Irena (as we discover is her real name) but leaves plenty of gaps for readers to fill in for themselves.

Lauren O’Hara captures the inherent warmth of the story in her deliciously whimsical illustrations that are just perfect for the quirky telling.

Another story about an intergenerational friendship is:

A Sea of Stories
Sylvia Bishop, illustrated by Paddy Donnelly
Stripes Publishing

Young Roo loves to visit her grandpa who lives in a cottage beside the sea with Bathsheba, his ancient cat and a large collection of Bits-and-Pieces he’s accumulated over the years.

Grandpa has a garden that has become overgrown and wild, the ideal place for a game of hide-and-seek when she goes to stay for a few days. When he gets tired there’s nothing he likes better than to sit in his favourite armchair and tell stories to Roo; stories inspired by the objects in his collection.

They all relate to the hidden cove at the bottom of the cliff, a place that Grandpa’s legs won’t carry him to any longer on account of the ‘rambly-scrambly path’ that leads down there.

On her final night at Grandpa’s Roo turns her wish for a way to bring Grandpa and his favourite cove back together into a plan; a plan that the following day is brought to fruition.

Highlighting the importance of sharing stories, this unusual story is both warm and infused with a delightful quirkiness.

Zippel: The Little Keyhole Ghost
Alex Rühle, trans. Rachel Ward, illustrated by Axel Scheffler
Andersen Press

One day after the holidays Paul returns home from school and gets the surprise of his life: a voice comes from the keyhole when he inserts his key and it turns out to be a tiny ghost claiming he lives in the keyhole.

He names the being Zippel; but later on that same day he learns that the lock on the front door is to be replaced in just three days.

Later that evening Paul’s parents leave him alone and go to a meeting. Immediately the lad informs Zippel and the race is on to find the enormously inquisitive ghost (with an interest in everything including toilets) a new home before the three days are out.

With smashing Axel Scheffler colour illustrations and absolutely full of delicious wordplay and puns, not to mention Zippel’s rhymes, this warm-hearted story about discovering friends in the strangest of places is fun around Halloween especially, but worth reading any time.

Two for Me, One for You / Otto Goes North / Cornelia and the Jungle Machine

Here are three recent picture books from Gecko Press each of which has friendship at its heart

Two for Me, One for You
Jörg Mühle
Gecko Press

In this fable-like tale two hungry friends, Bear and Weasel find themselves disagreeing over how to share the three mushrooms the former discovers on her way home through the forest.

Weasel cooks them for dinner

but at the table, Bear lays claim to the extra one on account of her bulk; Weasel counters that with a demand for mushroom number three saying, “I’m small, and I still have to grow”

From that small beginning grows a fully-blown fight: Bear found the mushrooms, Weasel cooked them perfectly; it was Bear’s recipe but Weasel’s favourite food and his tummy is rumbling; Bear’s stomach is bigger and with it her hunger; Weasel mentioned a rumbly tummy first; Bear wanted the extra mushroom first, she says and insults start flying. This prompts Weasel to procure mushroom number three and wave it aloft just as a fox happens to be passing by with its eye on the tasty tidbit.

Shared shock horror on the part of Bear and Weasel after which the two wish one another ‘bon appetit’ and tuck in.
Then comes dessert – uh-oh!

Comic timing combined with droll mixed media scenes of the escalating situation (I love the forest setting with the kitchen set-up) make for a fun way to introduce youngsters to the notion of sharing: how might they solve the ‘afters’ issue?

Otto Goes North
Ulrika Kestere
Gecko Press

Otto is a lemur friend of Lisa the lynx and Nils, a little bear. He has cycled many months, years perhaps, to visit the two northerners and to paint the famous northern lights to hang on his wall back home in the south.

But when he sallies forth with paints and brushes he quickly discovers that it’s so freezing cold that painting anything but zigzags is well nigh impossible. His friends are surprised since he like them is covered with fur, but they take him to the sauna along with a bowl of warming soup, instructing him to spend the night there.

Lisa and Nils consult their books – all two of them – and as luck would have it one is about wool. Even more fortunate is that the book is illustrated, for Lisa has forgotten how to read. The two make use of the pictures, together with initiative and set about combing their own fur, spinning it into wool, using vegetable leftovers to dye it and knitting a wonderful sweater – a true work of art. (Followers of a certain Scandi detective series will know of the Scandinavian predilection for fancy sweaters).

When Otto eventually emerges, somewhat recovered, from the sauna, they present him with the splendid gift.

Then, snugly clad in same, he is able to spend several hours painting outside.

The three then pass many contented days together before their visitor sets off home with happy memories and a wonderful item to add to the arty pieces already hanging on his wall.

A wonderfully heart warming story portraying the spirit of friendship that goes the extra mile, some amusing banter between the main characters and whimsical illustrations of the chilly Nordic setting (love the green roof) make for a satisfying book to share.

Cornelia and the Jungle Machine
Nora Brech
Gecko Press

Cornelia dislikes the large, gloomy home she’s moved into. There’s nobody to play with and since it’s clear she’s not going to help unpack, her parents send her outside to look around.

She sallies forth into the surrounding forest accompanied by her scruffy-looking dog and thus begins an incredible adventure.
Up, up, up a ladder that descends from one of the trees she climbs and encounters a boy named Fredrik who invites her into his treetop abode to view his many inventions, in particular his jungle machine.

Wheels are turned and buttons pressed whereupon tropical plants appear from what look like vintage gramophone horns and morph into a fully-fledged tropical jungle wherein lush fruits abound. A huge bird descends to take the children flying before dropping them beside a winding river where a sailing boat awaits.

After an incredible adventure, Cornelia bids her new friend farewell, knowing that henceforward, she’ll have any number of further rendezvous to look forward to.

This gothic style fantasy unfolds in little over a hundred words of dialogue and intricately detailed sequences of Edward Gorey-like illustrated spreads showing Cornelia’s magical mystery experiences that will draw in readers, helping to ensure that like the girl, they will be eager to immerse themselves in the make believe world of the imagination. The vertical orientation of the pages heightens the aerial nature of the tree top story.

Rabbit and the Motorbike

Rabbit and the Motorbike
Kate Hoefler and Sarah Jacoby
Chronicle Books

Rabbit lives in a field and dreams of leaving his safe haven one day, but this home-lover gets his adventures vicariously thanks to his friend Dog, an erstwhile motorcycle enthusiast who has spent much of his life riding his cycle all over the countryside.

One day though, Dog is gone and with it Rabbit’s daily adventure.

Dog has bequeathed his vehicle to his friend and it lies for many days abandoned in the field.

Then one night Rabbit decides to bring the bike inside and in the absence of a story, they listen to the sounds of the highway.

Summer comes bringing with it not only new blooms but also for rabbit, a newfound courage that allows him to admit to his fears and to suggest to the bike, “Just down the road.” But as we know, and Rabbit discovers, roads have a way of going on and on and …

It’s an independent, greatly enriched Rabbit that eventually returns to his field, with his head full of memories and stories, ready for new friends and with a feel for the pull of the open road.

Lyrically told by Kate Hoefler and gorgeously illustrated in pastels and watercolour by Sarah Jacoby, whose delicate scenes bring out Rabbit’s changing emotions while also capturing the power of the profound silences surrounding his loss, and the contrasting roar of the bike when he finally takes to the road.

An exhilarating tale of friendship, loss and finding the courage to step outside your comfort zone.

Baz & Benz / Mannie and the Long Brave Day

Baz & Benz
Heidi McKinnon
Allen & Unwin

Owls Baz and Benz are best friends: Baz is small and blue; Benz is big and green.

One day while sitting together Baz decides to check if their friendship really is for ever and ever.

He puts forward a series of possibilities – a colour change; a colour change with a spotty pattern? So far so good.

Constant ‘Meeping’? – not at all a good idea.

A scary bat with sharp claws? Err! Rather frightening, but the friendship bond would remain intact … no matter what.

Little humans will delight in Baz’s ability to annoy, and to push the boundaries but remain loved, and they’ll especially relish the way he gets the last “Meep!’

Comforting and reassuring; Heidi McKinnon gets right to the heart of true friendship in this simple, enormously enjoyable story for the very young. The bold, bright illustrations are captivating and the characters with their matching coloured lines immediately endearing.

A book I envisage being demanded over and over.

An altogether different celebration of friendship is:

Mannie and the Long Brave Day
Martine Murray and Sally Rippin
Allen & Unwin

This is a sweet story about a little girl Mannie, her toy elephant, Lilliput and her doll, Strawberry Luca.

Together with a special box of useful things, Mannie takes her friends on an exciting adventure … down the rocky road, through the tall, tall trees, across the winding river

and up the high hill for a picnic.

Suddenly the sun disappears, the sky darkens, thunder starts to rumble and Mannie feels scared.

Now it’s Lilliput’s turn to say the words, “What’s in the box?’

and before long all is well once more.

A truly magical book  that celebrates the boundless imagination of young children. Both author and artist capture the way in which the very young can transform almost anything and everything into the ingredients for their fantasy play.
Sally Rippin’s gorgeous illustrations took me right into the nursery classroom where I taught for a number of years, as did the ‘special box’ in the narrative. We too had a similar item not pink but battered and brown with a hole cut in the top, into which I’d put various items and we’d all sit around it and sing, “What’s in the box, what’s in the box, let’s think, let’s see … what’s in the box” before somebody would put in their hand and extract an item as the starting point for storying.

Through the Eyes of Us / In Every House, on Every Street

Through the Eyes of Us
Jon Roberts and Hannah Rounding
Graffeg

This is the second book written by the father of a child on the autism spectrum.

Herein as well as Kya from Through the Eyes of Me, we meet her best friend Martha.

Kya, now at school, talks about her experiences there, sometimes contrasting her thoughts, behaviour and preferences with Martha’s.

I know from experience of children I’ve taught that school can be a very confusing place for neurodiverse children, but both girls have their own ways of navigating through lessons, playtimes and lunchtimes, all of which are illustrated in colourful, detailed, sometimes funny scenes.

Kya also describes how she and Martha enjoy different tactile experiences,

and activities in their free time; and their routines are also different.

Martha knows when she feels tired, unlike our narrator whose energy seems boundless; although once asleep after a soothing bath and massage, she sleeps soundly.

Enlivened by Hannah Rounding’s expressive illustrations, this is a smashing celebration of every child’s uniqueness as well as providing an insightful picture of the world of an autistic child.

The book concludes with a list of relevant websites.

Put Through the Eyes of Us in your class collection and whether or not you have children on the autism spectrum therein, read it together, talk about it and lend it to individuals for home sharing too.

In Every House, on Every Street
Jess Hitchman and Lili La Baleine
Little Tiger

The girl narrator of this book invites readers into her house to see what goes on in its various rooms.

What we discover is a happy family engaging in seemingly ordinary everyday activities, but nothing they do is dull or mundane.

The cake baking in the kitchen becomes an opportunity for the family to dance and sing together.

The dining room might be the place for eating a meal, but that meal can turn into a fun piratical party,

while the living room is a great spot for rest and relaxation but also for dancing and singing, mulling things over and talking about feelings.

Yes the bathroom is for getting clean but there are opportunities for some artistic endeavours too.

And the bedroom? Yes sleep happens therein, but so too does play.

Full of warmth, this is a lovely demonstration of what makes a house a home delivered through Jess Hitchman’s upbeat rhyming narrative and Lili La Baleine’s views of the everyday incidents of family life that make it special but different for everyone in the street, as the final fold out spread reveals.

My Friends

My Friends
Max Low
Otter-Barry Books

We don’t actually meet the narrator of this book until the final endpapers but that’s getting ahead of things, so let’s be content and accept the invitation to meet ‘My Friends’.

An interesting and diverse lot they definitely are, starting with Mossy, the perfect friend for some quiet interchange or silent contemplation.
Then comes lion-loving Archibald …

followed by cloud watching Ezra who points out all manner of interesting shapes drifting across the sky.

There’s Pepper who cooks tasty food; Olga, the music lover;

Herman the knitter (or should that be, tangler); the inventive Lina ; Bert who cares for minibeasts on account of their smallness and his bigness

as well as Plim and an imaginary friend, Klaus.
Each is unique, special and loved; but occasionally it’s good to be on your own.

And as for the narrator, I’m not revealing the identity of same – you’ll have to get hold of a copy of the book to find that out.

This quirky, playful look at friendship offers a great starting point for exploring the topic with young listeners who will readily relate to rising star, Max Low’s bold bright images.

Why not treat your friend to a copy to celebrate International Friendship Day on 30th July?

Harry in a Hurry

Harry in a Hurry
Timothy Knapman and Gemma Merino
Macmillan Children’s Books

Harry the hare is always in a frantic rush to do everything and go everywhere, so much so that he’s apt to cause chaos wherever he goes.

He makes some pretty perilous moves as he speeds around on his scooter until he suddenly finds himself hurtling through the air and into a pond.

Happily Tom Tortoise is there to fish him out, scooter and all and is even good enough to offer to mend Harry’s battered scooter.
Being a tortoise however, means that whatever Tom does, it’s at an extremely slow speed and inevitably it will be so with the task he’s kindly undertaken.

The badly bruised Harry has no choice but to wait and accept his friend’s offer of lunch.

As he does so, something strange starts to happen.

After their lunch Tom suggests a walk and more of Harry’s grumpiness dissipates as he pauses and takes notice of his surroundings.

Tom slips quietly back to finish his task, returning several hours later with the job done, to discover a decidedly more composed Harry, now mindful of his previous bad manners, and appreciative of both his friend’s efforts and the beauty all around.

Timothy’s tale, funny though it may be, has serious messages about kindness, friendship and the importance of taking time to enjoy everything that slowing down offers, not the least being good-natured interactions with others and the beauty of the natural world.

Gemma Merino’s expressive illustrations orchestrate the action brilliantly, bringing out the contrasts between the characters with gentle humour, and providing lots of amusing touches, not the least being the activities of the little mouse and other unmentioned creatures – an extra reward for those who read the book slowly.

Flock

Flock
Gemma Koomen
Frances Lincoln Children’s Books

This is the latest in the Frances Lincoln First Editions series of debut picture books and introduces readers to thumb-sized people called the Treekeepers, and in particular one named Sylvia.

Sylvia is something of a loner and despite her role as a nurturer and mender, gatherer and tender, she is almost unnoticeable as she goes about searching for just the right twig or petal to take back to her special secret tree hollow to use in her play.

One spring day, a very windy one, Sylvia discovers a bird in her special hideaway and she decides to look after it. She names it Scruff and soon the creature has found its way into her affections.

She even wants to fly like Scruff and so mustering her courage, Sylvia holds on tightly as the two soar skywards on a journey of discovery.

They spend the day together exploring and encountering new things until as the light fades, Scruff suddenly takes to the wing again

for he’s spied a flock of birds looking just like him. Scruff is lost no longer.

Scruff and Sylvia return to the secret tree hole but Sylvia knows she must bid her new friend farewell.

That though isn’t the end of the story: rather it’s the start of a new chapter, for soon afterwards Sylvia accepts the invitation of another girl keeper to join her and her friends in their play; and as you would expect they love to hear her stories of her adventure in the sky.

Seemingly, Sylvia will never be a loner again.

Wonderfully whimsical and with a slightly Scandinavian feel, Gemma Koomen’s story is enchanting. I love discovering new authors and illustrators so was thrilled to receive a copy of this book. The wildlife details are a delight, making every spread something to become immersed in and I’m sure I’ll be discovering new quirky Tree Keeper activities on each re-reading. It’s certainly the case so far and I’m sure young listeners will want to spend ages pouring over the pages too.

‘A tree keeper adventure’ announces the cover so let’s hope further adventures are to come.

How I Learned to Fall Out of Trees

How I Learned to Fall Out of Trees
Vincent X. Kirsch
Abrams Books for Young Readers

Saying goodbye to a close friend is always hard especially when they’re moving away as Adelia is in this story.

She however, has planned a special farewell gift for Roger, which she delivers before she departs. It’s a lesson in how to climb a tree and, since Roger is a worrier, how to fall out safely.

She starts by collecting all kinds of memorabilia: leaves, feathers, abandoned nests,

rugs and cushions, favourite toys,

boxes and clothing.

All these memory-laden articles are shown on the verso of the spreads while on each recto, we see the two sharing their remaining time together with Amelia instructing her friend and demonstrating how to get up into the tree’s branches: “Shimmy up the trunk and don’t turn back” … “Hang on tight with both hands” … “take it one branch at a time” and as we’d expect, finally, “Letting go will be the hardest part!’

When the time comes for Roger to make that solo climb just after his friend’s departure, he scales up easily

but then inevitably … falls.

Thanks to Amelia’s carefully and lovingly compiled construction though, he does so beaming from ear to ear.

Kirsh’s story is as carefully constructed as Amelia’s landing pile while the expressive illustrations are nicely detailed: and the girl’s instructions to her friend could equally well be what she needs to tell herself too.

Lula and the Sea Monster

Lula and the Sea Monster
Alex Latimer
Oxford University Press

A new highway is due to be constructed and as a result, despite their protestations, Lula and her family are soon to be forced out of their family home, an old house on the beach.
One morning just before their move out date, Lula takes a walk along the beach armed with sandwiches and her bucket and spade. Suddenly she comes upon a tiny creature that looks as though it’s about to become a seagull’s tasty breakfast snack.

Lula however sees off the seagull, scoops up the little creature in her bucket and decides – on account of its size – to name it Bean.

She takes him to a suitable sized rock pool and frees him there, feeding him a sandwich, which the creature soon demolishes.
Promising to return next day, she goes home and in the morning makes extra sandwiches for her new friend, Bean.

Overnight however, Bean has grown considerably and now won’t fit in the rock pool. Lula takes him to a larger one, feeds him generous amounts of sandwiches and they spend some time playing together.

The following day she returns with a veritable Bean feast.

Bean meanwhile has grown enormously and using the food as bait, she lures him to a very large pool where he gobbles up everything.

By now Lula’s attachment to Bean is considerable, so much so that she cannot bear to visit him next morning. Come lunchtime though, she’s feeling braver and off she goes again but there’s no sign of Bean in the rock pool.

All too soon it’s moving day and as the bulldozers arrive, Lula stages one final protest. Can she possibly prevent the demolition squad from getting to work?

Perhaps not single handed, or even with the help of her human friends; but what about Bean? …

I could see little Luna becoming a member of the young guardians of the environment movement that has been so much in the news recently with their protests and marches. Good on her and on them. In Alex’s magical, heart-warming story, as in life, it’s down to children to make a difference and his portrayal of little Lula as a determined, don’t mess with me character is terrific.

With its seaside setting, this is a great book to share and discuss with youngsters especially during the summer time, but its message is an important one no matter the season.

The Suitcase


The Suitcase

Chris Naylor-Ballesteros
Nosy Crow

One day there comes a weary, wan and dusty looking stranger dragging behind him a large suitcase. Challenged by a watching bird as to the contents of his suitcase, the creature answers, ’Well, there’s a teacup.’

Another animal arrives on the scene expressing surprise at the size of the case in relation to a teacup and is told that it also contains a table for the cup and a wooden chair for the stranger to sit on. Up rocks a fox and on hearing what’s being said, implies the stranger is lying.

This prompts him to fill in further details about a wooden cabin with a kitchen or making tea and to describe its surrounding landscape too.

By now the creature is so exhausted he begs to be left alone to rest and falls asleep right away.

The other three creatures discuss things and fox is determined to discover the veracity or not of the information the stranger has given. His friends are less sure that breaking into the case is acceptable but fox goes ahead and the contents of the suitcase is revealed …

The damage is done: still fox insists the stranger lied to them whereas the other two are showing concern.

Meanwhile the slumberer dreams …

And when he wakes up he’s totally surprised at what the others have done …

Audiences will go through the whole gamut of emotions when this heart-rending story is shared, as did this reviewer.

It’s a totally brilliant, brilliantly simple and compelling way of opening up and discussing with little ones the idea of kindness and how we should treat those in need. I love the way the animals and what they say are colour matched and Chris’s portrayal of the characters is superb.

What better book could there be to share with a nursery or foundation stage class during refugee week than this one, offering as it does, hope and the possibility of new friendship.

Paper Planes

Paper Planes
Jim Helmore and Richard Jones
Simon & Schuster

Following his The Snow Lion, Jim Helmore has written another  beautifully observed, enormously moving story.
Mia and Ben are best friends; they do everything together, their favourite activity being making paper planes. In winter, they race them against the geese and hope one day to make a plane that will fly right across the lake.

Then comes some devastating news: Ben and his family are moving to a new home in the city. How will they sustain their friendship when they’re so far apart?

The two exchange planes and vow never to forget one another.

Winter comes; the days are hard for both of them and in her frustration and anger, Mia smashes the plane Ben’s given her.

That night something stirs Mia during her slumbers. The plane in the garden, appears whole once more; and then she’s flying with the geese, high in the sky. Suddenly she spies another plane: could it possibly be?

The next morning she receives a parcel from Ben. Inside is a model plane but it isn’t complete: Ben knows of only one person who can add the wings …

The friendship isn’t broken after all; the connection is still there, and the hope.

Richard Jones’ captures the changing emotions to perfection in his richly textured illustrations. They contain plenty of details, and like the words, a powerful poignancy that is impossible to forget. I love the subtlety of the STEM element especially the way Mia uses both her knowledge from her observations and her creativity to complete her task.

Readers and listeners too will need to use their observational skills to read Richard’s pictures carefully to get the most from this quietly powerful picture book.

Brave Molly

Brave Molly
Brooke Boynton-Hughes
Chronicle Books

This virtually wordless picture book follows young Molly from her window seat where she sits reading and observing three young passers by, out from her house and down the street. But what is constantly lurking close by, sometimes waiting, sometimes following, sometimes stopping to watch?

It’s the monster that bears a strong resemblance to her own drawing tossed into the rubbish bin before she left home. Said monster, so we assume, is a representation of Molly’s own fear of interacting with others.

The three children leave behind a book on the seat they’d stopped on; Molly puts it in her backpack and sets off after them, with the monster not far behind.

Her shyness escalates and with it the number of monsters as she runs, crawls through a tunnel

and climbs trees until she feels almost completely overwhelmed. Somehow though, she summons up the courage to confront the terrors and seemingly they vanish, or almost.

One returns as she attempts to overcome her shyness and return the book: can she manage to get the better of it?

Could a simple word perhaps be all that’s required?

Make sure to check out the endpapers – this moving, empowering story starts and concludes thereon. It’s a great book to open up discussions with youngsters, about overcoming shyness or other fears.

Wordless books leave room for readers’ own interpretations – to ask and answer their own questions, and perhaps draw their own conclusions. Brooke Boynton-Hughes’ softly coloured pencil, ink and watercolour illustrations leave plenty of space for them to do just that, not least just how much inner courage Molly had to summon up to step outside and make that journey into the anxiety-inducing world beyond the safety of her home.

Field Trip to the Moon

Field Trip to the Moon
John Hare and Jeanne Willis
Macmillan Children’s Books

A class goes on a field trip to the moon and almost all the visitors follow their teacher, one particularly curious member of the group lags behind. This student is carrying drawing materials and decides to sit down and make use of them, watched by the residents, one of which narrates the rhyming story.

The student ‘Earthling’ drops off to sleep and wakes up to discover that the spaceship on which the party came has departed. I don’t know what the irresponsible person in charge was thinking of, not doing a head count first. The now sad-looking Earthling starts drawing again as the lunar inhabitants cautiously approach.

The initial surprise of a face-to-face encounter rapidly gives way to a creative session with human and lunar dwellers brightening up each other,

sheets of paper and the moonscape with colourful designs.

 

Meanwhile back comes the spaceship prompting the lunarians to hide themselves away though they re-emerge to wave a fond farewell to the departing young earthling who has been rather unfairly chastised, I think, by the group leader.
An experience neither side will forget, for sure.

The child’s body language, and that of the host populace in Jeanne Willis’ lunar scenes speak as loud as Hare’s verbal narrative of this expedition. Were the illustrations created using 3d models one wonders; they’re highly effective and likely to inspire children’s own creative efforts – perhaps to create their own group lunar landscape. There’s much potential for classroom activities, as well as for individuals after a sharing of this unusual book.

If you missed it the first time around, coming in June from Macmillan, is a special 50th Anniversary Moon Landing paperback edition of a book previously reviewed on this blog:

The Darkest Dark
Chris Hadfield and The Fan Brothers

Humperdink Our Elephant Friend

Humperdink Our Elephant Friend
Sean Taylor and Claire Alexander
Words & Pictures

Storyteller Sean gives the impression he’s spent time standing behind the heads of young children, observing carefully, so he knows what they’d do should a playful pachyderm burst through the door of their playgroup.
That is just what happens in this book and straightaway the children attempt to accommodate him in their play, be it dressing up, hairstylists …

hide and seek or something more energetic. No matter how hard they try though, things keep ending in disaster.

The children then change tack asking Humperdink what he likes to play and before you can say, ‘come outside’ he’s led the little ones outside for some exceedingly satisfying elephant-stomping, stamping and stumping,

followed by elephant riding right into a jungly place that’s perfect for …

After all that romping Humbert is ready to settle down into something equally creative but rather less energetic; though of course, he and his new friends are always up for a jungle foray.

The joyful exuberance inherent in Sean’s telling is wonderfully echoed in Claire Alexander’s scenes of the characters’ imaginative play. Clearly she too spends time observing little ones – their joie de vivre, their intense concentration on whatever they’re engaged in, and the way their open hearts are sensitive to the feelings of one another, empathetic and full of love.

Perfect for story time in a playgroup or nursery and at home with little ones, this is a book that’s bound to be requested over and over.

Mouse & Mole

Mouse & Mole
Joyce Dunbar and James Mayhew
Graffeg

First published over 25 years ago, it’s wonderful to see what was a favourite book among new solo readers in primary classes I was teaching at the time, brought back in print by Graffeg.

Mouse and Mole are great friends (somewhat similar to Arnold Lobel’s Frog and Toad to whom there’s a dedication of sorts before the five tales herein).

All five of the stories are adorable but I think my favourite remains Talk to Me. Here the two chat together about the possibilities of ‘tomorrow’ be it fine – then a picnic with cheese and cucumber sandwiches is the order of the day. If however the day isn’t fine, then an apple wood fire, cosy armchairs, roast chestnuts, toasted muffins and hot chocolate (mmm!) are on the agenda. Should it be ‘an in-between sort of day’, Mouse suggests ‘we will do something in-between’ … We will tidy up.’ I hope for their sake it isn’t the third option. I doubt we have in-between days in our house!

Salad is the title of story number two and the day is, so Mouse informs his still in bed pal, ‘wild and wintry’. Who can blame Mole for wanting to stay snuggled up in a cosy, warm bed, even with the offer from Mouse of huddling by the fire to consume toasted muffins and roast chestnuts.

Those particular items appear to be favourites with the two characters, one of which consumes large quantities of both.

I won’t divulge what happens in the other three stories – Tidying Up

Stuff

and The Picnic – yes they do finally go –

rather I’ll urge you to get yourself a copy of this new edition that still has as much charm – both Joyce’s deliciously comic tellings and James wonderful illustrations – as I remember from back in the day. Read alone or read aloud, it’s great either way.

Ceri & Deri: The Treasure Map / Ceri & Deri: Build a Birdhouse

Ceri & Deri: The Treasure Map
Ceri & Deri: Build a Birdhouse

Max Low
Graffeg

These are the latest titles featuring best friends Deri the Dog and Ceri the cat that introduce young children to specific concepts/skills through fun stories. (Here it’s orientation and design.)

The Treasure Map in the former is an old one that once belonged to Ceri’s nan, an erstwhile pirate, so the stripy feline claims. Ceri’s story of said nan sailing the high seas inspires Deri and the two set off excitedly, map in paws, to find treasure.

En route they are joined by the equally enthusiastic Gardener Glesni, Owain the Optician and Farmer Ffion who are more than willing to leave their respective allotment, spectacle selling, and vegetables to join the search.

Eventually the map leads them within smelling distance of the sea.

But is that treasure buried on the sandy beach as they’d been led to believe by the X, and if so just what will they discover when they dig?

The Bird House tells how the friends come upon a curious little bird while out walking together in town. Clearly it cannot remain on Deri’s head so the two decide to build it a house.

They think carefully about the design – a hallway with telephone for making ‘bird calls’ and ‘a place for all its shoes,” they decide; a kitchen with a plethora of bird seed, flowers, a sink; a balloon-filled dining room , amazing tree-patterned wallpaper, a record player (for listening to bird songs) a bathroom complete with bird bath entered by waterslide

and (obviously) a wave machine. The friends get even more carried away with their elaborate plans; but, tools and materials assembled, can they actually put them into action: I wonder?

This one made me laugh out loud a couple of times, it’s so sweetly silly and I’m happy to report that despite Ceri’s feline-ness, the bird has found two new friends.

If you’re yet to meet Ceri and Deri, I suggest you start here. The friends are a delight and Max Low’s stories are full of charm and engagingly illustrated.

Slow Samson

Slow Samson
Bethany Christou
Templar Books

Samson’s favourite activity is spreading happiness as a consequence of which he has lots of friends and many party invitations.

However this is problematic as he frequently stops on route to a venue to help a fellow animal or merely for a friendly chat.

This tardiness causes him to miss out on all the fun, not to mention the cake at Terry’s birthday bash.

Samson resolves to do better and hurry to the next party. True to his word, he dashes past all those in need but still when he arrives, the party is over; worse though without his help, others had suffered. Poor Samson sobs, despairing he’ll ever be on time on account of his slowness.

Unbeknown to the sloth, Samson’s friends are concerned and after considerable thought, come up with a plan. An invitation is sent and Samson decides that despite his lack of speed, he just cannot disappoint his pals.

Next day, off he sets but he doesn’t rush – his friends do however, causing him to feel bad; but on he goes – slowly, slowly, convinced he’ll be very late. But is he?

For fear of being a party pooper, I’ll leave the little creature dangling and you deciding for yourself.

What I will say is that with its rainforest setting, debut picture book creator Bethany Christou’s warm-hearted tale of altruism, friendship, determination, kindness (and the odd piece of cake – oops!) is a great read aloud and a perfect starting point for discussions with young listeners.

I love the expressively portrayed animals especially Samson, and there’s plenty of gently humorous detail to enjoy in every scene as well as in the playful endpapers.

Stick & Fetch Investigate: The Wrong End of the Stick / The Naughtiest Unicorn

Stick & Fetch Investigate: The Wrong End of the Stick
Philip Ardagh, illustrated by Elissa Elwick
Walker Books

Top-notch undercover detective duo Sally Stick and her canine pal Fetch return in another set of gigglesome episodes.
In the first, Glass Half Full, we learn that the friends have had to shift their operation to a temporary HQ on account of their stay at artist Uncle Bob’s residence for the duration of Granny Stick’s hospital sojourn.

It’s not long before the detectives have a case: Uncle Bob has lost his glasses and there’s a tasty reward on offer for finding them. But there are glasses, and there are glasses. The particular ones in question have gold rims and although there are glasses aplenty in the house, none have gold rims – or do they.

This is a case of can’t see for looking; but can Sally and Fetch solve it ?

Hmmm! What’s that smell – could it be sausages? …

Bothersome beavers are at the heart of the next case, or so the detectives surmise when they come across a snapped-in-two lamppost on their way back from the library where they’d read about the tree chomping creatures. They find  clues in the form and aroma of baked beans; and see a sign indicating the location of a swimming pool. Sally puts two and one together and off they head to the pool.

Time to go undercover, but will they find a beaver on arrival and if so, can a damming crisis be averted?

Two further cases, equally zany are concerned first with, assisting the police when a spate of bag-snatching breaks out –

there’s a frog and a whiffy man involved here; and the second, a bit of bed-digging that might just happen to yield treasure, of a sort.

Delectably silly, enormously engaging and very importantly, celebrating the imagination, (or maybe just the wrong end of the stick), with its plenitude of comical illustrations by Eliissa Elwick, this smashing little book is perfect just flying solo reading.

The Naughtiest Unicorn
Pip Bird, illustrated by David O’Connell
Egmont

The particular Unicorn School in this story runs during the holidays and young Mira is overjoyed when she receives an invitation to join, especially as her sister is also a pupil and her mum had been too.

Having successfully entered the portal with another newcomer Raheem, Mira meets her teacher and classmates, then enters the hall to learn of the principles on which the school prides itself. She can hardly wait to be paired with her unicorn and at last it’s her turn.

However, the squat, pot-bellied creature, Dave, that is eventually coaxed through the door is somewhat lacking in sparkles, although he does have a twinkle in his eye.

Once in the classroom, Mira hears that there are only two days before they must go out on their first magical quest.

Can she possibly get ready when the recalcitrant creature objects even to being groomed? Do they actually have a totally magic bond?

Things don’t look promising especially as Dave’s penchants seem to be for doughnuts and falling asleep in lessons. Will Mira’s ambitions to go on that quest ever be fulfilled? Perhaps her friends Darcy and Raheem can help …

Just right for newly independent readers, this is a sparky tale that focuses as much on friendship as the glittery world of unicorns, showing that magic comes both from the former and the latter. Humour runs throughout Pip Bird’s telling and is brought out further in David O’Connell’s zany illustrations clearly drawn with a twinkle in his eye. Add to all that a quiz to help readers identify their unicorn type, and some jokes; and those who enjoy the book will be excited to learn that there’s a promise of more to come.

Nell & the Circus of Dreams

Nell & the Circus of Dreams
Nell Gifford and Briony May Smith
Oxford University Press

Circuses hold a tremendous fascination for many children and so it is with young Nell although she doesn’t know it when the story begins. What she does know though is that she feels sad on account of her mother being ill and then, when she discovers a tiny chick in the farmyard, very happy.

Nell and the lost chick – she names it Rosebud – become almost inseparable.

One night Rosebud disappears from the end of her bed and when Nell wakes next morning her feathered friend is nowhere to be seen. Dashing outside she leaves the farmyard and heads through the still dewy meadows till she finds herself surrounded by enormous wooden wheels.

There’s an intoxicating aroma of coffee, toast and hedgerow flora, and she hears hammers striking metal. Lo and behold, she’s walked right into a circus.

Up goes the huge tent and Nell sees girls busy adding adornments inside and out. She helps and is invited into one of the wheeled homes where she joins a large family meal. She endeavours to communicate that she’s searching for her lost chick but suddenly the music starts and everyone rushes out and into the big tent.

Nell is mesmerised by the performances she sees …

but even better a wonderful surprise awaits her in the ring: there’s something feathery standing in a circle of light.
From then on, although sadly the circus has to depart, remembering doesn’t;

Nell carries the memories always in her heart and relives them in her own way.

Beautifully and movingly told by Nell, founder of Giffords Circus that has its home on the outskirts of Stroud, near to where I currently live much of the time, her words really capture the magic of all things wonderful about a circus community such as theirs.

I can think of nobody better than Briony to illustrate the story. Her jewel-like scenes are out-of-this-world wonderful, be they of Nell’s farmhouse home and yard, the temporary homes of the circus community or of the performance.

A must have picture book, this.

Will You Help Me Fall Asleep? / I’m Not Grumpy!

Will You Help Me Fall Asleep?
Anna Kang & Christpoher Weyant
Hodder Children’s Books

Little Frog is anxious to fall asleep and asks readers to help him for if he doesn’t get sufficient sleep his mother won’t allow him to participate in the Frogatta boat races the following day; in other words he’ll be in BIG, big trouble and there’s no fooling his observant mum.

He tries our (supposed) suggested counting sheep, a bedtime book – definitely not the best idea – and a chat with last year’s prize caterpillar toy all of which fail and then he recalls his teacher, Miss Chon’s advice to breathe long and deep then mind travel to his ‘happy place …

and joy of joys, zzzzzzzz.

Whether the final wordless spread is Monty’s blissful dream or the young frog’s elated presence (along with his parents) at the next day’s Frogatta is left open to readers to decide: no matter which, one cannot help but root for little amphibious Monty in this frog-a-licious bedtime tale.

With Christpher Weyant’s super, lively, cartoonish scenes of Anna Kang’s dramatic telling, the book is enormous fun for pre-sleep sharing, especially for little ones with a touch of insomnia.

I’m Not Grumpy!
Steve Smallman and Caroline Pedler
Little Tiger

Waking up to discover a huge furry bottom blocking your door might put most of us in a bad mood; it certainly does Mouse whose mood further deteriorates when he’s splatted on the nose by – so he thinks – a splashy raindrop.

In fact it’s a tear shed by a distraught little badger just outside his window wailing, “Where’s my Mummy?”

Together the two animals set off in search of the Mummy Badger only to find themselves lost.

Encounters with Squirrel and Owl both of which recognise Mouse as ‘that grumpy mouse”, (hotly denied by said Mouse), are willing to help in the search and off they all go deep into the forest.

There they come upon a large bear. On learning that Mouse is in fact helping Little Badger get home, the bear changes his grumpy accusation to “a kind friend”; a first for Mouse.

They travel deeper into the forest until Mouse becomes overwrought

which results in Owl giving him a cheer-up hug – another unusual event for the little creature. Suddenly out of the bushes emerges a very scary, very hungry predator.

Does that mean Squirrel, Badger, Owl and Mouse become a lupine’s evening meal?

Happily not. I won’t divulge the ending, but what ensues will certainly bring a happy smile to the faces of young listeners.

With opportunities for audience participation, Steve’s warm-hearted story with Caroline Pedler’s expressively portrayed woodland animals provides a good starting point for circle time discussion with early years children on themes of friendship, kindness, and on how their moods might affect other people.