Why Are There So Many Books About Bears?

Why Are There So Many Books About Bears?
Kristina Stephenson
Hodder Children’s Books

The title to Kristina Stephenson’s new book poses a question that I suspect a fair few picture book reviewers will have asked themselves.

They however haven’t until now had recourse to ‘the most brilliant minds in the animal kingdom’ gathered together at Mollusc College, Oxford to discuss what is billed as the ‘Impossible Question’ concerning this preponderance of ursine book characters.

Let’s meet some of these brains forthwith.

First to offer a suggestion is William Snakespeare who proposes the answer lies in the number of words rhyming with bear and suggests a few examples.

His fellow debaters think he might have the answer. Not so Albert Swinestein. He quickly knocks that idea on the head stating that pig is equally easy to find rhymes for.

At this point there comes a knock on the door and a voice announces the arrival of the tea trolley. The debaters send the knocker packing drawing attention to the DO NOT DISTURB sign and Swinestein continues, proposing as the answer, the variety of sizes of bears; but this notion is immediately demolished by the PhDs (Porcupines, Hedgehogs and Dragons with Spines.)

The discussion continues, as do the interruptions by the tea trolley pusher causing increasing agitation to the debaters.

Just when tempers reach boiling point, Trevor the little mouse pipes up.

It might just be that this tiny, thus far silent creature, has solved the puzzle and that answering the door might yield the answer to the impossible question.

There’s something for everyone in this droll story. The very young will enjoy the frequent interruptions, the fold-out spread surprise and the superbly expressive illustrations of the characters, while older readers and adults will relish the tongue-in-cheek humour and the punning. Everyone I think, will love the throwaway finale tossed in by the tea-trolley pusher when he eventually gains admission.

Agent Weasel and the Fiendish Fox Gang / Freddie’s Amazing Bakery: The Great Raspberry Mix-Up

Agent Weasel and the Fiendish Fox Gang
Nick East
Hodder Children’s Books

This is the first of a proposed series of adventures starring super-spy Agent Weasel, resident of Flaky-Bark Cottage in United Woodlands.

Nick’s writing is wonderfully silly as he plunges his often inept Agent Weasel, WI6, super-spy of high renown, into all kinds of scarifying scenarios in his efforts to foil the nefarious Fiendish Fox Gang who, so rumour has it are creating absolute havoc with such dastardly deeds as nicking nuts from squirrels and shaving sleeping badgers’ bottoms.

It certainly seems as if Agent Weasel has his work cut out, though thankfully his team-mates – Doorkins, Steadfast, Mole and Muriel Moth are also at work in the woods.

But before you can say ‘catastrophe’ Weasel and his pal Doorkins find themselves taken captive and face to face with the notorious FFG leader Vixen von Fluff …

and what’s this she’s saying about sabotaging the eagerly anticipated Autumn Big Bash?

Can our super agent extraordinaire succeed in extricating himself from a potentially very sticky situation and if so could he possibly pull off what looks like the impossible feat of derailing Madame Vixen’s plan and saving the show?

Chortles galore guaranteed whether it’s read alone or read aloud; with a liberal scattering of Nick’s own hilarious illustrations, this is comedic craziness through and through. More please!

There’s competition chicanery too in:

Freddie’s Amazing Bakery: The Great Raspberry Mix-Up
Harriet Whitehorn, illustrated by Alex G. Griffiths
Oxford University Press

Young Freddie Bonbon is Belville town’s star baker. He works alongside his manager and best friend Amira who greets him one autumnal morning with the news that she’s been busy doing the maths to see if they can afford to replace their old and far too small cooker but unfortunately they just cannot afford to. Unless perhaps Freddie manages to win the advertised Belville Baking Competition with its £500 prize. He certainly has a fantastic design in mind for his cake.

In a swankier part of town is Macaroon’s Patisserie, run by the curmudgeonly Bernard Macaroon. He’s not at all like Freddie who is willing to offer advice to anyone, even those he knows will be rival contestants in the baking competition. Bernard shall we say, lacks imagination and flair when it comes to baking but his determination that he, not his young rival will win the prize means he’ll go to any lengths so to do.

As competition day draws nearer strange things start happening. First there’s the incident when Freddie out on his delivery round almost runs over Bernard’s beloved cat.

Then comes the disappearance of the remains of the raspberry pink food colouring he’ll need for his competition cake and when he goes out to buy some more, all the shops have mysteriously sold out and the only place he can find any is …

What luck, thinks Freddie but is it?

The day of the event arrives and Freddie is well prepared; but no sooner have the competitors been told to begin than things start going wrong for him.

Is it the end of his chances: or could it be that the kindnesses he’s shown to his fellow competitors might make a difference?

Like Freddie’s cake baking, there’s plenty to spice up Harriet Whitehorn’s story of cooking, community and camaraderie. Young readers will appreciate the way the story is broken up into short chapters that include lists and a generous sprinkling of Alex Griffiths’ quirky illustrations. There’s even a recipe for Freddie’s Raspberry Cupcakes at the end of the book. Mmm! Tasty.

Think Big!

Think Big!
Kes Gray and Nathan Reed
Hodder Children’s Books

Humpty Dumpty sits on a wall, but he’s not alone; his friends sit alongside and they are considering their futures.

Humpty however, sets the bar very low: “A boiled egg” is his only ambition. Shock horror among the others who go on to urge him to Think Big!

“Buy a pair of football boots and become a footballer,” suggests Wee Willie Winkie.

“Look for clues and become a detective, says Little Bo-Peep.

He could perhaps, like Little Miss Muffet, consider becoming a scientist.

Egg though he might be, he “really should try thinking outside of the box.” as Jack and Jill recommend. I second that!

An artist, a policeman, a doctor or a firefighter are also put forward as possibilities; but it is perhaps the Cow who jumped over the moon that really gets Humpty’s brain buzzing with potential personal achievements.

But will our eggy friend actually manage to live up to his elevated thoughts and reach for the stars …

Storytelling maestro Kes Gray smashes it again with this tale that will surely have you giggling from start to final, laugh-out-loud punchline (or more accurately crunchline).

Nathan Reed does a terrific job capturing Kes’s droll humour in his high-voltage illustrations, every one of which is a cracker.

With its powerfully positive ‘believe, work hard and you can achieve’ message this is an eggstra-special offering for young children.

Claude: Anyone for Strawberries? / Claude:Ever-So-Summery Sticker Book

Claude: Anyone for Strawberries?
Alex T.Smith
Hodder Children’s Books

This is another is the delectably funny Claude stories spawned by the Claude TV Show and it’s perfect summer reading.

It’s a Tuesday in Pawhaven, but one that starts badly for our friends Claude and Sir Bobblysock who have been eagerly anticipating “Strawberries-for-Breakfast day”.

Off they dash to Denzel’s fruit-and-veg van, but disaster! When they arrive Denzel informs them that on account to the Pawhaven Tennis Championships, all the strawberries are already sold.

The friends head to the park, and as they arrive a tennis ball hurtles out of the sky directly towards Sir Bobblysock.

In a flash Claude leaps skyward, catching the ball in his beret, mightily impressing his pal.

Meanwhile the semi-final has ground to a halt. Movie star, Errol Heart-Throb, is refusing to continue without his lucky ball.
Needless to say he’s thrilled to have it handed back by Claude. Before you can say “strawberries’ Claude has landed himself a job as official match ball boy.

You can guess where Sir B. heads off to, hardly able to contain his excitement at the prospect. However, once again his anticipated strawberry feast is thwarted.

In the meantime, Errol has been declared the winner of the semi-final but it appears that vanity will stop the now ruffled-looking victor from playing in the final.

Claude is to take his place and is more than willing when he learns what the prize is …

There’s a slight snag though – the other finalist is Kimberley and she has a somewhat over-sized racket.

It’s a tense match, but who will be the winner? I wonder …

As with all the Claude stories, this is a smasher.

Game, set and match to Alex T.Smith and the TV series for another winning episode served up with bowls full of summery deliciousness. Hard luck if you happen like this reviewer, to be allergic to those small fruity berries Claude and Sir Bobblysock love so much. In which case, just get the book and pass on the strawberries.

If that’s not enough for your young Claude enthusiasts then also based on the Sixteen South TV show is:

Claude: Ever-So-Summery Sticker Book
Hodder Children’s Books

Set on Pawhaven beach it’s full of seasonal silliness, Claude and Sir Bobblysock style.
There are lots of activities to test your little ones’ visual skills, pages to adorn with sandcastles (and some of the 250 stickers that make up the centre pages); a maze to navigate; a picnic to share with the two favourite characters and more.

Christopher Pumpkin

Christopher Pumpkin
Sue Hendra, Paul Linnet and Nick East
Hodder Children’s Books

Who or what would you ask for assistance if you were wanting to throw the scariest ever, totally unforgettable party? Perhaps not a pile of almost forgotten cooking ingredients that just happen to be lying on your kitchen floor; but then you are not a witch with a magic wand like the one in Sue and Paul’s crazy magical rhyming tale.

This witch decides to spell a heap of pumpkins into life, name them – Gnarly, Grizzly, Grunty, Roar, Snaggletooth, Stink Face and err – well she never gets to give a name to the last one for he cheerily informs her that he’s called Christopher Pumpkin and invites his fellow pumpkins to a group hug.

Can this thoroughly ill-fitting, non-scary animated member of the pumpkin fraternity possibly fit in with the witch’s scarifying plans? She decides to give him the benefit of the doubt, albeit while keeping her beady eyes upon him.

Task one is to create decorations that will bring dread and fear into all who so much as glance at them.
Easy peasy thinks Chris but the witch and other veggies are let’s say, underwhelmed. They’re equally unimpressed with Chris’s musical proposition …

So what about the party fare? Of course it’s cooked up in the cauldron and seems suitably disgusting until in walks our pal Chris proffering err, some pretty pink confections.

The witch gives the guy one more chance – be scary or be soup.

Can Chris come up with a scary solution before the following morning: he has just the hours of darkness to work something out or he’s in the pot.

Oddly enough, come morning, there’s an empty bed where Chris had been and the witch is ready to throw open the door to let her guests in …

Terrifically silly but terrific fun, this tale is perfect for showing little ones the importance of being themselves and not letting anyone push them around or make them into something they’re not.

It’s a smashing read aloud that slides and slithers over and off the tongue like yummy pumpkin soup. And as for Nick’s scenes of magic, mischief mayhem and the occasional menace, they’re a totally tasty treat to feast your eyes upon.

What’s not to love? Perhaps though, that rather depends on whether or not you have a penchant for things puffy, pretty and pink.

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.

The Colour of Happy / Some Days / A Thank You Walk

The Colour of Happy
Laura Baker and Angie Rozelaar
Hodder Children’s Books

This sweet, simple rhyming story of a boy finding a dandelion seed head and what happens thereafter is the means for an exploration of feelings for young children around the age of the child narrator, using a rainbow of emotions and the fluffy seed head.

The child, out walking with a pup, spies a dandelion clock: ’Yellow is for happy when I spot a special thing,’ he tells us and having picked it, hops and skips along. But when a gust of wind whisks his treasure away, the boy is engulfed in dark blue sadness.

His emotions then run through the colour spectrum: red for anger as he watches it sail away;

green for feelings of envy when he sees a girl with the seed head; grey when he cannot believe things will be okay; gold for the kindly response from a little girl, and the return of hope as they play together chasing the dandelion clock while it sails off again;

purple for the proud feeling when the boy again holds his treasure safe and bids his friend farewell; orange for the mounting excitement as he heads home and finally, pink as he reaches the front door with his somewhat depleted, love-filled offering …

Little ones will certainly relate to Laura Baker’s lovely story, which offers a great starting point for becoming mindful about their own responses to situations. With a foundation stage class, I envisage children talking about the book, their own feelings with regard to a particular happening; and then perhaps responding with paints or whatever medium they feel right, in music or a dance with coloured scarves perhaps.

Some Days
Karen Kaufman Orloff and Ziyue Chen
Sterling Children’s Books

We all experience different feelings at different times and so it is with young children and this book, with Karen Kaufman’s lively rhyming text and Ziyue Chen’s warmly hued illustrations, conveys that huge gamut of emotions through the course of a year.

Through two young children, we share in their everyday highlights such as ‘chocolate pudding pie day’s’, ‘Kites up in the sky days. Jumping super high days’; the joys of swimming and sunbathing;

as well as the downs – a nasty cut knee for instance.

Some days are extra special like that for ‘picking out a pup’ or winning a cup. Then come fussy mum days

and days when raincoats just won’t do, and there are  too wet to play football days with glum stay indoors faces; better though are snow angel making days and watching a warm fire days.

The author acknowledges those bad days when everything feels wrong

and those when it’s best to be alone.

Finally comes ‘Learning to be me days’ which is really the essence of the whole, a book that celebrates the positive but doesn’t gloss over the negative feelings. It’s a good starting point for discussion in an early years setting, or after a one-to-one sharing at home, perhaps about how best to respond to and deal with negative emotions. After all, being mindful of, and being able to talk about, our emotions and feelings helps us best deal with them.

Helping to develop mindfulness in even younger children is:

A Thank You Walk
Nancy Loewen and Hazel Quintanilla
Words & Pictures

Nancy Loewen’s brief story of a mother and little girl walking their dog, Duke, is one of the Bright Start series aimed at developing emotional intelligence in the very young.

Simply expressed it tells how as they stroll hand in hand mother and child interact with the animals they encounter. The barking sounds of Duke, the chirping of birds eating seeds, a neighing pony fed carrots, an overturned beetle that they rescue, which flies off with a buzz-buzz,

are, the child is told, the creatures’ ways of saying thank you.

Cutely and expressively illustrated in black and white with orange pops, by Hazel Quintanilla the book demonstrates the importance of showing appreciation and thankfulness. It’s never too soon to start saying thank you and as an introduction to being mindful about expressing gratitude it offers a useful starter for a circle time session with a nursery group, or for individual sharing at home.