The Frog’s Kiss

The Frog’s Kiss
James Mathew and Toto

I was knocked out by the beauty of Toto’s misty illustrations for this LGBTQ+ retelling of the frog prince story: it’s such a wonderful debut as a picture book team James and Toto.

The book begins with a frog sitting atop a lily pad when suddenly something falls into the pond. Frog investigates and discovers a book; a book that shows a frog very similar to himself being kissed by a princess. The image of the kiss stirs his froggy heart and he decides to search for a special somebody too.

His quest eventually takes him to a castle surrounded by gorgeous gardens wherein there is a pond with a fountain just like that of the book he’d found.

Having washed off the dust from his travels, frog sits and waits and waits. As the moon rises, three princesses appear, come for the summer ball. Unbeknown to frog, one, so the king and queen hope, will become the bride for their son.

Devastated by what the three princesses say when it’s suggested they might kiss a frog, our frog sits once more on a lily pad feeling stupid. All of a sudden who should approach but a prince who addresses him and having received consent, tenderly picks up the frog and kisses him. And the rest, of course leads to a happily ever after fairy tale ending. After all, everyone deserves that.

It’s no exaggeration to say James and Toto have done the Grimm tale proud. This is a stunner.

Gaspard’s Christmas

Gaspard’s Christmas
Zeb Soanes and James Mayhew

The enormously popular fox Gaspard returns in his fourth adventure, the proceeds from which will go to St. Martin-in-the-Fields Charity that helps the homeless.

When out hunting for food one bitterly cold night near to Christmas, Gaspard comes upon what he thinks is a bulky black bag in a bus shelter. On investigation he discovers an old man with a white beard wearing a black overcoat who is obviously freezing. He quickly realises that the man needs help and goes off in search of assistance, calling on his friends Flinty the dog and Peter the cat before returning and attempting to warm the man whose condition has clearly deteriorated.

The savvy creatures investigate and find that the old man’s name is Nikolas and off rushes Flinty to find her person. Then together Honey and Flinty struggle through the streets back to Nikolas and the other animals.

Eventually back in the church, the old man is given a meal, clean clothes and a warm shower, and later a special temporary role at the shelter party.

Despite being given a small reward each, Peter, Flinty and Gaspard understand that their true reward is the knowledge that their kind and speedy actions have saved someone’s life.

Such a vital message about selflessness and a thought-provoking story about the importance of showing kindness to those less well off than ourselves. I love James Mayhew’s painterly, detailed illustrations that, as always in this series, are infused with loving concern.

Mouse & Mole Clink, Clank, Clunk!

Mouse & Mole Clink, Clank, Clunk!
Joyce Dunbar and James Mayhew

It’s always a pleasure to be in the company of Mouse and Mole and this book contains three brand new stories. In the first, Clink, Clank, Clunk, Mouse, relaxing in his hammock with a book suddenly hears a horrible noise coming from the direction of the shed. There he finds Mole tinkering with their motorbike. Informing his friend that one is supposed to do this from time to time, Mole proceeds to dismantle the entire machine and try as they might, the two just can’t put it back together. Along comes Fox who offers to take it off their hands giving them instead a balloon each. Is that the last the friends will see of that motorbike though?

Next, Mole is very troubled about the possibility of Something on the Roof, talking of sleepwalking, a bird nesting in the chimney and others of his thoughts. Can a ripe rosy apple help such notions to disappear?

In A Frisky Fluttery Ghost Mouse has to wait a very long time to share the crispy buttery toast he’s made for breakfast and so while his friend continues to slumber, he hangs out some washing. Once again Mole lets his thinking turn into worrying when he eventually wakes up, looks out of the window and even causes Mouse get an attack of the frights.

Just the thing to share with young children as well as for those beginning to read independently to try as a solo read. Either way, James Mayhew’s superbly expressive illustrations capture the ups and downs of the characters’ everyday life together just perfectly. A delight for both children and adults.

Mrs Noah’s Song

Mrs Noah’s Song
Jackie Morris and James Mayhew
Otter-Barry Books

The third in this series wherein Jackie Morris’ lyrical words are visually sung in collage style art by James Mayhew, is again gorgeous. Together they tell a magical tale about how Mrs Noah brings song back into the world. Music and song are a way of connecting people no matter where they are and Mrs Noah assuredly unites her family by singing to the children, morning, noon and night, while Mr Noah listens enraptured.

One morning the children ask Mrs Noah where she learned to sing and she tells them sadly that it was “Far away and long ago.” Called by the sunshine, the children then leave, save the youngest who asks the singer, “Why are you sad?” Having given an explanation about remembering her mother and grandmother, Mrs Noah says that-sometimes the sadness caused by missing somebody you love is a good kind of feeling.

They then both venture outside to greet the day watched by Mr Noah who had heard what was said.

Outside it’s time for a singing lesson, which must start with learning how to listen properly – eyes closed, ears open wide, wide. After a while the youngest child joyfully announces, “I can hear the garden singing.” And, it most certainly was, with birdsong, humming bees, dragonfly wings rattling and a gentle breeze setting the leaves in musical motion.

Mr Noah gets busy fashioning a huge hammock and they all spend a blissful night under the stars listening to the magical music created by the natural world together with Mrs Noah’s songs.

Next morning having slept soundly, to everyone’s delight they’re woken as the sun rises, by the dawn chorus. United in song, united in music, united in love. If only it could be so the world over, if only …

Like many people in our current turbulent world with wars and people forced to flee, Mrs Noah was actually a refugee who had to start her life anew in an unknown place; she knew that music could be a way of helping her children develop a sense of belonging in a new land. Music speaks a universal language, one that transcends barriers and that’s something that’s vitally needed in our divisive world. “If music be the food of love, play on.” So said Duke Orsino in the first scene of Twelfth Night. Let it be so.

Nen and the Lonely Fisherman / Love Grows Everywhere

Nen and the Lonely Fisherman
Ian Eagleton and James Mayhew
Owlet Press

Far out to sea lives Nen; he’s a merman who loves exploring but nonetheless has an empty feeling in his heart. Every night he sits beneath a starry sky singing to the sea whose waves carry his words of hope but Nen remains alone when he returns to the seabed.

Despite his father Pelagios’s warnings, Nen’s explorations of the world beyond his own lead him to discover fishing boats beyond which lives Ernest, a lonely fisherman who also feels something is lacking in his life.

One night Ernest hears Nen’s song and feeling something in his heart, he sets off in his boat to find the owner of this magical voice. So it is that a bond develops between Nen and Ernest. However Pelagios urges his son to stay away from the humans who are harming the oceans. Nen pays no heed however for he feels that the gentle, kind Ernest is special and their nightly meetings continue.

As Pelagios’ anger and sadness increase they unleash a terrible storm that puts Ernest’s life in danger as he’s thrown from his rickety boat into the foaming deep. Can Nen possibly come to his rescue

and if so, might it just change the mind of his father?

Washed through with an important conservation message, Ian Eagleton’s soft-spoken, lyrical tale of acceptance and love is compelling and perfectly paced, helped in no small part by James Mayhew’s powerfully atmospheric illustrations that include a wonderful full-length vertical scene of Nen searching the depths for Ernest, as well as small vignettes and double page spreads.

There’s love too in:

Love Grows Everywhere
Barry Timms and Tisha Lee
Frances Lincoln Children’s Books

‘Love grows everywhere…
From country farm to city square
From desert village, hot and dry,
to mountain home where eagles fly
Through Barry Timms’ gentle rhyming text and Tisha Lee’s vibrant illustrations we share a family’s love, not only for one another but also for the plants they grow, nurture, sell, and give to members of their local community, newcomers especially. When reading this It’s impossible not to feel the various ways love is shown and shared

be it within the family, the richly diverse community or anywhere else: for love is a gift that helps to make the world a brighter, happier place; it keeps on growing and there’s sufficient for everyone, everywhere. It might just take some time for its magic to happen.

How wonderful it would be if this heartfelt book could show the way to everyone, in every place where such love is yet to manifest itself.

Lo and Behold! Mouse & Mole

Lo and Behold! Mouse & Mole
Joyce Dunbar and James Mayhew

Brimming over with seasonal warmth and the spirit of friendship is author Joyce and artist James ‘ visit to the wonderful world of Mouse, Mole and their other animal friends.

The first of the three stories finds the two opening the curtains to discover a blanket of snow covering the ground outside. The prefect day for making a ‘snowsomething’ and so eager to enjoy the outdoors are they, that they eat their breakfast porridge on the doorstep. Then it’s time for some games before meeting up with Rabbit, Rat, Hedgehog and Owl for a spot of sledging.

‘Snowsomething’ building is next and they have to wait until it’s dressed before deciding what sort of something it actually is. A Snowmole it turns out to be and then Mole decides to have his supper beside it to keep it company. He even beds down beside the Snowmole and eventually falls fast asleep. How come when he wakes up, Mole is in his own bed inside their cosy home? However Mole is still concerned about Snowmole being lonely but good old Mouse has done something to make sure that isn’t so.

It’s not long before December comes around and Mouse announces that it’s time to start using the advent calendar

until, as the second episode is called, lo and behold, it’s Christmas. Despite having said that, Mole decides that the big day is a really long way away that year. Meanwhile, as they have lots of preparations to make, the friends are so busy that Christmas Eve soon arrives.

So, what is the very important thing that Mole thinks they’ve forgotten to do as they get ready for bed on 24th; or rather, several important things seemingly? Then what is the bump in the night referred to in the title of the final episode?

I suggest snuggling up with a hot chocolate and sharing this with your little ones in the run up to your own Christmas. What wonderful Christmas cards some of James’ watercolour illustrations would make.

One Upon A Tune: Stories from the Orchestra

One Upon A Tune: Stories from the Orchestra
James Mayhew
Otter-Barry Books

You can tell a story with words, you can tell a story with pictures and you can tell a story with music; you might perhaps use them all. In tandem with his book creating, that is the way of life for James Mayhew.

The six stories in this book are tales that were the inspiration for some of the best known classical music in the world and each one is illustrated and told with James’s consummate skill and artistry.

What better way to introduce Paul Dukas’ The Sorcerer’s Apprentice music than to share the story of the broom that the young apprentice brought to life and in so doing caused a flood? Or maybe youngsters would enjoy doing battle with a host of hungry trolls, they of the scary eyes and crooked teeth conjured up In The Hall of the Mountain King.

How about visiting Tuonela, the realm of the dead underworld in Finnish mythology and there encountering The Swan of Tuonela, the sacred bird that swims on the black river? I found myself searching out Simon Rattle and the Berliner Philharmoniker’s rendition of Sibelius’ symphonic poem after reading the story and being so moved by the mother’s search for her son.

A wonderful precursor to hearing Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Flight of the Bumblebee is to get to know the tale of the prince who morphs into a bumblebee to find his true love.

Switzerland’s most famous folk hero William Tell, the brave archer who risked his life to stand against an evil tyrant for the sake of his fellow Swiss countryfolk, may well be familiar to readers: Rossini based his opera on a play by German poet Friedrich von Schiller and that story too is retold herein. It’s almost impossible to keep still if you hear the finale to The William Tell Overture.

Another famous Rimsky-Korsakov masterpiece, Scheherazade was inspired by the remaining tale, wherein we meet Sinbad the Sailor who was swept from a ship by the flick of a terrible sea monster’s tail when working aboard. Just one of the stories told to the Sultan by the titular Scheherazade..

I love so many things about this book, not least being the clever way in which snippets of musical notation form part of the stunning illustrations on every spread.

(Backmatter includes a paragraph about each work and its composer as well as recommended sources of recordings of the music.)

This is a book that surely deserves a place on family bookshelves and in classroom collections.

Mouse & Mole: The Secret of Happiness

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

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.

Gaspard’s Foxtrot

Gaspard’s Foxtrot
Zeb Soanes and James Mayhew

Gaspard the Fox returns for a third adventure and it’s a totally unexpected one.

While chatting to his friends Peter the cat and Flinty the dog he learns from the latter that his owner Honey is taking him to a concert ‘about London’s wildlife’ in Hyde Park that very evening and suggests that Gaspard should come along.
So when Honey and Flinty head for the number 38 bus-stop Gaspard tags along behind.

As Honey boards the bus she drops her scarf. Gaspard catches it and jumps aboard intending to return it when they get off.
Then follows a journey through London – we’re given the fox’s eye view in James Mayhew’s exquisite illustrations- that takes them through Islington with its iconic war memorial,

past China Town, into the heart of theatre land, passing Piccadilly with its famous statue, all the while the recorded voice announcing where they are. Suddenly he hears “Hyde Park Corner’ and off pile the passengers. In the crowd, Gaspard almost loses sight of Honey and Flinty but just in time he makes his exit and follows the masses to the centre of the park

where he finds a suitable spot to stop, wait, hope and listen to the music.

Onto the stage walks a man Gaspard recognises as living close to his den and he’s holding what looks like a white stick. He tells the audience that the next piece of music is so new it’s yet to have a title.

What happens thereafter is truly amazing, but I won’t spoil this eventful, gently humorous story at the heart of which is friendship.

It’s full of lovely details about nature, London (Peter talking of his peregrinations makes me miss it all the more at present) and of course, the music; the map endpapers are terrific too.

How exciting to learn that the story has been adapted by composer Jonathan Dove and is due to be performed with Zeb narrating and James as illustrator.

Mouse & Mole: A Fresh Start

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

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.

Mrs Noah’s Garden

Mrs Noah’s Garden
Jackie Morris and James Mayhew
Otter-Barry Books

The terrific team that is Jackie Morris and James Mayhew have created a sequel to Mrs Noah’s Pockets that moves forward in time with the Noahs now safely aground high on a hill where Mr Noah is hard at work fashioning a home from their enormous ark.

Mrs Noah meanwhile is missing her garden and as the story opens has just found a place to start creating a new one.

She enlists the children’s help, first in building walls and terraces on the hillside and then in planting. For not only had the ark carried animals two by two but also all manner of plants – bushes, bulbs, trees and shrubs. And in those deep pockets of hers Mrs Noah had even thought to stow away seeds.

With the planting done, she sets about creating a beautiful willow bower complete with gorgeously scented honeysuckle and jasmine. The children are expecting the seeds they’d help sow to start bursting through the warm earth right away, so Mrs Noah pauses to explain that germination takes a while.

After a day hard at work outside Mrs Noah has more to do, this time with fabric; what can she be making? Mr Noah thinks he knows.

Time passes and the garden thrives becoming alive with both flora and fauna till Midsummer morning arrives. Now nature’s own magic has truly done its work

and there’s a very special surprise awaiting Mr Noah when he follows the children outside. What could it be?

With themes of fresh beginnings, nature’s bounties and enjoying the safety of one’s abode and its surroundings, (and there’s new life too), Jackie Morris’ beautifully crafted fable has a magical feel to it.

Alive with magic too, are James Mayhew’s fantastical illustrations. Using a mix of collage, paint and print techniques he makes many of them absolutely dance on the page. At other times, the richly textured images and colour palette conjure a feeling of peace and tranquillity as in this Midsummer’s Eve scene.

Koshka’s Tales: Stories from Russia

Koshka’s Tales: Stories from Russia
James Mayhew

Immediately engaging from the outset is James Mayhew’s deft weaving together of a handful of Russian folktales using Koshka the story-spinning feline of the title as narrator.

We meet this cat at the end of the first tale in which Tsar Saltan marries one of three sisters, Militrissa, who promises to bear him seven sons, and is tricked several times by her jealous siblings.

As a result he has her tossed into the sea in a casket but Militrissa, along with one baby son whom she has hidden up her sleeve, do not perish and eventually end up on the far distant island of Buyan. And it’s there they meet the wise Koshka and before long she begins to tell the new arrivals The Tale of the Snowmaiden.

Thereafter comes another story telling of an encounter with a merchant who acts as a link between Tsar Saltan and his wife on the island.

The merchant returns taking back on subsequent trips each of Koshka’s tales, the others being The Tale of Sadko the Minstrel,

the Tale of Ivan, the Grey Wolf and the Firebird,

The Tale of Vassilisa the Fair and Baba-Yaga, to the Tsar until eventually he is convinced to set sail himself and find his wife.

James’s illustrations are absolutely gorgeous. I love the ornamental folklore inspired motifs that border the text and the beautiful richly coloured side panels and full-page illustrations that make every page turn a delight.

A terrific way to introduce youngsters to the riches of Russian folklore; this book would make a great present and is perfect for sharing on chilly wintry days and nights.

Mouse & Mole

Mouse & Mole
Joyce Dunbar and James Mayhew

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


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.

Can You See a Little Bear?

Can You See a Little Bear?
James Mayhew and Jackie Morris
Otter-Barry Books

Stunningly beautiful illustrations by Jackie Morris accompany James Mayhew’s sequence of rhyming statements relating to a variety of animals and a question ‘Can you see a little bear …?’ as we accompany the young polar bear on a fantasy journey.

It takes us through a medieval landscape during which he encounters hot air balloons, entertainers of various kinds, a camel train and a host of exotic creatures including an elephant, musical mice, parrots, peacocks, a walrus, zebras and a whale, beautiful moths, foxes, dolphins and geese.

Little bear engages in activities such as balancing on a ball, and head standing; he tries on items of the performers’ attire

and even participates in a performance.

Then, towards the end of the book into the array comes a big bear carrying a light to guide the little one homewards

for a bath, some tea and then, as he’s drifting into slumbers, bed.

The patterned text and questioning nature of the rhyme serves to draw the listener’s focus into the spectacular scenes, gently guiding attention towards the little bear’s named activity among the wealth of gorgeous detail on each spread. For example ‘Parrots can be green / and parrots can be red, / Can you see a little bear standing on his head?’

Full of mystery and magic and along the way introducing colours, opposites and contrasts: this book was first published over a decade ago. If you missed it then I urge you to get hold of a copy now: it’s sheer, out of this world bedtime enchantment for both child and adult sharer.

Ella Bella Ballerina and The Magic Toyshop

Ella Bella Ballerina and The Magic Toyshop
James Mayhew
Orchard Books

Alongside his books focussing on famous artists and their work, James Mayhew has created the Ella Bella Ballerina series to introduce children to famous ballets and this is his latest.

When young Ella enters her ballet class and steps onto the stage, her teacher invites the children to dance with the toys placed around the magical music box.

Staying behind after the lesson to help, Ella replays the music, starts to dance and finds herself outside an enchanted toyshop.

Therein she discovers an amazing world of dancing dolls and other fantastic objects all cared for by a kindly toymaker and his apprentice.

Particularly exciting is a pair of can-can dancing dolls that are in love.

But when two families come into the shop, both demanding to buy them, it seems as though the pair will be separated.
They’re heartbroken at the thought: could there perhaps be a way that Ella can help them to stay together forever?

Mayhew’s introduction to the classic ballet ‘La Boutique Fantasque’ is utterly enchanting. His vibrant scenes will captivate all who love ballet, young and not so young; and for those who want to know a little more, the final page provides information about the origins of the ballet, first performed in London in 1919 by the Ballet Russe.

Mrs Noah’s Pockets

Mrs Noah’s Pockets
Jackie Morris and James Mayhew
Otter-Barry Books

This totally fresh and original take on the Noah’s Ark story is an absolute bobby-dazzler and what an inspired author/artist pairing.
Jackie Morris’ s powerful prose is honed to perfection so that not a single word is superfluous: here’s a taste:
This rain came from a sky
dark as a bruise,
falling hard and fast,
beating the earth,
washing down tracks,
making streams of pathways
and rivers of roads.

I love that Mrs Noah is portrayed as a subversive character who, instead of snipping, threading, tacking, tucking and stitching what her husband assumes are curtains for his ark windows, is in fact fashioning herself a multi- pocketed cape within which to stash all the ‘troublesome creatures’ that Mr Noah has on his list to leave behind when they set sail on their voyage. Genuis!

James Mayhew has used a strikingly brilliant, new style for his atmospheric illustrations – a mix of collage and print-making …

The design too is superb and those vignettes are little beauties.

This, I think, is destined to become a classic: it deserves a place on every family bookshelf and would make a great addition to any primary classroom collection.

Magic Forest Forays

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Super Happy Magic Forest
Matty Long
Oxford University Press
Billed as Tolkien for toddlers, this epic quest assuredly has the right ingredients to engender enthusiasm for the fantasy genre in young children. So, let’s go to Super Happy Magic Forest wherein our story starts. It’s full of fun, frolics and picnics all year round; life’s pretty peachy you could say.

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But then disaster strikes the Forest: the Mystical Crystals of Life – source of all that’s joyous therein – are stolen.
It must be Goblin work announces Old Oak at an urgently called meeting of forest residents. Five brave heroes are selected to reclaim the Mystical Crystals …

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And despite their reluctance off they set on the journey of a lifetime but of course, their epic quest will not be an easy one. There are frozen tundras full of fearsome creatures to battle through, a haunted forest and dreadful dungeons to test their nerves and skills to the utmost and even then there’s no escape from enemies …

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Finally Goblin Tower is in sight but will the five locate the missing crystals within its walls? There’s plenty of unexpected confectionary items but crystals well err …
Certainly it’s a celebratory finale but is it cake or crystal induced?? Hmm …
Let’s just say, there’s a twist to this crazy magical saga of epic mischief and silliness. I’m not sure who will get more enjoyment out of this one – the ‘toddlers’ billed as its target audience or those older readers/adults who are the book’s mediators to the very young. Certainly the former will enjoy spotting items in the fantastical visuals but some of the subtle and not so subtle humour will definitely go way over the heads of most four or five year olds. But then that’s the thing about a good book – that multi-layering, which means it offers something to a wide audience.

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Ella Bella Ballerina and A Midsummer Night’s Dream
James Mayhew
Orchard Books
Young Ella Bella returns once again and on this occasion, dance teacher Madame Rosa’s magical music box is playing Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream for the ballet class to dance to.

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Inevitably, after the lesson Ella Bella cannot resist opening up the musical box lid for one last dance in her fairy costume. And thus she meets Puck who whisks her, with her floral headband, away to a fairyland forest where Oberon waits for the ‘magic flowers’ with which he hopes to cast a spell upon Queen Titania.

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James Mayhew’s elegant watercolour illustrations evoke a timeless quality to this engaging tale of magic and mischief and dance.

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Learning About Art

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Matisse King of Colour
Laurence Anholt
Frances Lincoln Children’s Books
This is a reissue of one of Laurence Anholt’s excellent series featuring famous artists and the children who knew them. It tells of a special friendship that developed between young nurse Monique and the artist Matisse who is in bed recovering from an operation for abdominal cancer. When Monique first enters the artist’s home it seems to her almost like a vividly coloured jungle. Gradually as the old man recovers, a special bond grows with Monique helping him to a chair to sit and paint, and taking on the role of artist’s model as well as nurse.

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Then it’s time for Monique to move on: she becomes a novice nun but still remains a nurse working in the local community. One day she discovers that an empty house, called The Dream, is to have a new owner and it’s none other than her own dear friend, Henri Matisse who is overjoyed to see her again and eager to demonstrate his new way of creating colourful scenes.

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When the artist hears of the sorry state of the nuns and their lack of a chapel he is inspired to build them a ‘house of colour’. Despite the skepticism on the part of some of the nuns Matisse perseveres with his project and finally the ‘Matisse Chapel’ is complete.

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This heart-warming account is based on the true story of the friendship between Henri Matisse and Monique Bourgeois (who he names as his principal co-worker in the chapel project). Anholt’s artwork in vibrant colours beautifully evokes the style of the famous artist and further details of Matisse’s life are given on the final page of the book

Another entirely welcome reissue is

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Katie and the Bathers
James Mayhew
Orchard Books
When Katy and her Gran find the swimming pool packed to capacity one hot summer’s day, they decide to head for the nearby art gallery instead.
There, while grandma takes her customary snooze, young Katie goes exploring and before long finds herself plunging into the river to join the Bathers at Asnières. Therein she meets young Jacques and the two then find themselves embarking on a whole series of watery adventures via the other Pointillist pictures on display.

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Katie saw a little girl in a white dress in Seurat’s SUNDAY AFTERNOON ON THE ISLAND and climbed inside the picture.

But then with the whole place awash …

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Katie hears the guard and so hastily seeks the help of a magical looking man, subject of Paul Signac’s Portrait of Felix Fencon.

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With a flick of his stick and an ALLA-KAZOOM, Felix succeeds in reversing the mayhem and restoring the room to order in the nick of time.
Totally engaging and an excellent way to introduce children to Pointillism if you cannot get to see the real thing, or before visiting a gallery with a Seurat, Pissarro or Signac on view. The final page provides a brief note about how readers can create their very own Pointillist pictures after the style of the artists in the book.

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London Bound

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Katie and the British Artists
James Mayhew
Orchard Books pbk
In this recent Katie reissue, our charming young heroine accompanies her Grandma to The National Gallery. On route she ponders on the question of what job she might have when grown up. Then, in the gallery while Gran has a snooze, she takes a look at some of the pictures, starting with Constable’s The Cornfield. Her comment that she’d love to be a shepherd, receives a surprise response from the shepherd boy in the painting (called Ben in the story) and the two then strike up a friendship …

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and together go in search of alternative occupations. Turner’s Rain, Steam and Speed offers a train-driving experience, George Stubbs’ Whistlejack leads to an opportunity for Ben to try his hand as a horseman, albeit not very successfully,
The two then climb into a Gainsborough – The Painter’s Daughters Chasing a Butterfly

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and therein Ben discovers an artist’s life isn’t for him and finally Turner’s The Fighting Temeraire furnishes a brief sea voyage after which Katie returns to her gran and Ben to his sheep.
For anyone visiting the National Gallery with young children or a primary class, this delightful book is an excellent introductory starting point to some of the 18th and 19thC paintings therein.


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London Through Time
Nick Maland and Angela McAllister
Frances Lincoln Children’s Books
Nick Maland (of the Oliver series fame) has illustrated what is essentially a concertina fold-out time line of London. We join two children, Maisie and Max (and a friendly pigeon) as they time travel from Roman Thameside London, through the plague ridden city of the Black Death, thence to Fleet Street of Tudor London, on to 1666 to view the Great Fire and along a Georgian street with its aromatic, mid 18thC coffee houses. From there we drop in on the city in 1865 where chimneys belch filthy smoke and poor children work for a mere farthing and thence, onto Victorian times where the city is shrouded in a filthy black smog. Flip the fold out and move into Edwardian times with the Votes for Women marches, then in 1914 watch the soldiers leave for the Great War; visit the Roaring Twenties, the Blitz of the World War 2 and join the Coronation parade of 1953 for Elizabeth 11. The swinging sixties are the penultimate destination when boutiques grew up all over London and finally after almost 2000 years, our guides bring us back to the present, to Trafalgar Square and the familiar sights of Big Ben,with the London Eye in the background.
A final page asks readers to spot items shown in fourteen tiny vignettes which will in all likelihood send them back for a second look at this fascinating visual trip through England’s capital city.
Nick Maland’s art work is packed with fine details and superbly executed and Angela McAllister supplies the informative written accompaniment to Max and Maisie’s historic wanderings.

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Woolly Wonders and Katie’s Wondrous Starry Night

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A Box of Socks
Amanda Brandon and Catalina Echeverri
Maverick Arts Publishing pbk
Granny Mutton is knitting again – not a scarf this time but socks – a whole box of them. Little Lionel cannot wait to open the box of delights that is Granny’s container for the woollen gifts she Clickety-click’ creates with her trusty needles. Instead he plays the “What’s in the box … “ guessing game; (now that sounds familiar to me in my foundation stage teacher role) and learns that its contents will keep the feet of his friends horse, duck, dog and mouse cosy and warm.
After a spell spent pairing and labelling said socks, off goes an excited Lionel to deliver them to his pals.

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But disaster strikes in the form of sheepdog, Rocky who zooms past sending the box and its contents whirling skywards – whoopsie! You will guess what happens when Lionel finally retrieves all the socks and labels – labels that have been separated from their sock pairs …
Then it’s a case of Operation Swap Sock until order is finally restored and those stylish socks (and one more pair) duly celebrated.


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Part of the enjoyment of this amusing tale is in the anticipation of the sock mix-up and the story is a fantastic starting point for an early years game of sock sorting/matching. (You will need a few pairs of funky socks to play and there are several possibilities for activities, some open-ended, others less so.)
First though, share this super-socky story with your class or group and let them relish the antics portrayed in Calalina Echeverri’s wild and woolly artwork.

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Katie and the Starry Night
James Mayhew
Orchard Books pbk
Katie and her Grandma enjoy visiting art galleries together and on this particular day, the purpose of their visit is to look at some of the works of Vincent Van Gogh. Katie’s favourite is The Starry Night and as Grandma dozes in front of the painting, Katie goes right inside it and catches one of the dazzling stars. Other stars tumble out and follow her as she leaves the picture and moves on visiting

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Vincent’s Chair, Noon, The Olive Grove and Fishing Boats on the Beach each of which becomes part of her magical journey. But she must catch and replace all the stars before the gallery guard discovers their absence. Katie is joined on her journey by the subjects of the other paintings,

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but rest assured, everything and everyone is returned to the rightful place before Grandma stirs from her own dream.
It’s over twenty-five years since James Mayhew first introduced Katie as a means of sharing his enthusiasm for art with children. He has continued to delight countless under eights (and adults) with further Katie books and this one will be no exception. It’s a wonderful way to introduce the work of Van Gogh to a young audience (along with seeing one of the artist’s paintings for real that is) and will surely inspire many of them to try creating their own twirly, starry, skies. There’s even a final page message from Katie to help set those paint tools or fingers a-swirling.
Not to be missed: a classic.

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London Christmas, Country Christmas

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Katie’s London Christmas
James Mayhew
Orchard Books
Fast asleep on Christmas Eve, Katie and Jack are woken by a loud sneeze coming from downstairs: Grandma, they suppose, but when they creep down, whom do they discover busy with presents by the tree – not Grandma but Father Christmas himself. Not only does he have the snuffles, but he’s also behind with his parcel deliveries. Katie and Jack are more than ready to help and so ‘WHOOSH!’ off they all fly over the rooftops of London in the swirling snow. They see the lights of Regent Street, get a view of Covent Garden, then it’s on past that glorious Trafalgar Square Christmas tree

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to the Houses of Parliament and around Big Ben before starting the night’s work proper. And what a busy time they have delivering to all manner of houses; but there’s one very important delivery left to do involving a royal chimney, a very special family and some sleeping corgis.
With glorious paintings of some of the most famous sights of London coated in snow and bathed in starlight

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and glowing indoor scenes, this magical, charming story with touches of gentle humour, is truly wondrous.

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And Then Comes Christmas
Tom Brenner and Jana Christy
Walker Books
When the days barely start before they’re over again,
and red berries blaze against green shrubs.
And bare branches rake across the sky …
Then hang up boughs of fir or spruce or pine,
Dotted with cones and bits of holly, welcoming winter.’
So begins this heartwarming seasonal book wherein we share with a rural family, the time leading up to Christmas Day itself. First though there are decorations to hang up, a visit to Santa at the store, parcels to keep hidden and a tree to choose and to cover with baubles and lights. At school there is the inevitable concert, and presents to make for mum and dad. Come Christmas Eve the whole house is scented by delicious baking smells and neighbours come to visit. Then there are stockings to hang, presents to put under the tree, not forgetting a special offering to leave for Santa and his reindeer before snuggling up in bed for a favourite story. When … the whole world waits seemingly …

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Then next morning …

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Beautifully and poetically written, and portrayed in glowing scenes of seasonal wonders both inside and outdoors, this is a gorgeous book to share in the days before Christmas either at home or school. The patterned text uses the same When/Then structure right through with a general ‘When …’ statement

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followed by a ‘Then’ action for the featured family.

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Seasonal smells, sights and sounds are evoked on every spread so that each turn of the page brings sensory delight.
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No young child’s Christmas is complete without:

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Alfie’s Christmas
Shirley Hughes,
Red Fox pbk
Alfie’s Christmas
Shirley Hughes
Bodley Head
Making cards and decorations, counting down the days with an advent calendar featuring a nativity scene, Christmas cooking, buying and decorating a Christmas tree, choosing and wrapping presents, writing to Santa, carol singing, hanging up Christmas stockings and a family Christmas dinner with visiting relatives:
these are just some of the ingredients of four-year old Alfie’s Christmas so lovingly told and illustrated in Shirley Hughes incomparable style.
This is a traditional family Christmas full of warmth, friendship, love, bustle and excitement, and some secrets too. It’s Christmas as we would wish it to be for everyone, before Christmas started in October and consumerism took over.
Assuredly, a book to buy and cherish year after year.
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May Miscellany

Don’t Spill the Milk!
Stephen Davies and Christopher Corr
Andersen Press
From a tiny village in Africa one rainy season, young Penda sets out to take her daddy a bowl of milk as he tends the sheep in the grasslands some distance from their home. With her mother’s words ‘Try not to spill any on the way’ ringing in her ears as she walks, bowl on her head across the dunes, through the cavorting beasties of the mask dance, crossing the River Niger aboard a fishing boat, then travelling on among the giraffes on the plains and finally up the high mountain all the while balancing the bowl perfectly without spilling a drop. Then as she approaches her dad sitting under the mango tree, disaster strikes as a fat mango drops from above, SPLOSH! spilling the milk everywhere. But all is not lost as her father explains: in that bowl there remains something even more important, Penda’s love, not to mention some juicy mango.
A riot of colour and pattern abound in this heartwarming story of determination and family love: a splendid follow-up to The Goggle-Eyed Goats.
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J&D Owl 2

Little Owl’s Orange Scarf
Tatyana Feeney
Oxford University Press
Little Owl is a creature with definite tastes: he is fond of maths, ice-cream, scooter riding and especially surprises, well usually. However, the new orange scarf lovingly knitted by his mother is one surprise he does not like at all. Despite his most determined efforts, Little Owl just cannot get rid of that long, itchy accessory until that is, his class visits the zoo from where he returns sans scarf at last. After a fruitless call to the zoo, Mummy Owl determines a new scarf is called for and this time, the joint endeavor is much more to the little owlet’s liking and just the thing to wear on return trips to the zoo.
Delightfully minimalist in style (unlike that orange scarf), this cute story has warmth to match the new soft jade green wrap-around Mummy Owl lovingly knits for her little one.
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The Book of Dreams
Shirin Adl
Frances Lincoln Children’s Books
By nocturnal journeying readers are invited to enter into a whole variety of dream worlds narrated in short explanatory sentences and gloriously illustrated in Shirin Adl’s magical collage illustrations. We are transported to a jungle landscape, a perplexing riverside location, confront a dinosaur, find the ability to breathe underwater, to fly and even to gather clouds from atop a mountain. We can swing from star to star, time travel and hold dream-related conversations with animals large and small. Such exciting possibilities come in dreams of many forms if only you can remember them.
This unusual picture book offers a multitude of possibilities for discussion, art work, movement, music making and of course, for dreaming, either at home or school.
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Bubble & Squeak
James Mayhew and Clara Vulliamy
Orchard Books
With her amazing Pyramid of Peril act, Bubble the elephant is the star of Mr Magnifico’s travelling circus. People come from far and wide to see the amazing feat wherein Bubble’s balancing atop the pyramid is assisted only by her bouquet of flowers. The trouble is, being constantly on the move, Bubble never manages to make a real friend; in short, she is lonely. One night however, a tiny mouse seeking a place to shelter comes upon the circus tent and once inside, is mesmerized by Bubble’s performance. Full of admiration, he watches her night after night but hasn’t the courage to tell her; instead he stows away when the circus moves on and is eventually discovered. There follows a search, which ends when he is chased out of the big top. Fortunately he hasn’t got far when he discovers that Bubble is in terrible danger. So, being a brave little fellow he returns to save his heroine and become not only a hero but also a friend and named co-star in the famous show.
This new partnership of two already established creative talents has resulted in a charming book. Much of the charm comes from Clara Vulliamy’s retro-style illustrations in striking colours which are at once funny and tender, capturing the gentle humour and warmth of Mayhew’s tale of an unlikely friendship beautifully.
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The Hundred Decker Bus
Mike Smith
Macmillan pbk
Bored with his dull routine wherein the same people board the bus at the same place at the same time, day in day out, the bus driver decides to do something different. Rather than following his normal route he takes an alternative road, a small one he’d not noticed before. So begins an amazing adventure over days, weeks and months with the double decker bus growing ever taller as it travels over land and sea, taking on an ever-increasing number of passengers until, CLUNK! CLUNK disaster strikes and then there is only one way to go…
With an enormous fold-out page (one snag here: the perforations do tear rather easily), bright pictures packed full of interesting and amusing details, not to mention counting opportunities galore, Mike Smith’s debut offering is sure to win votes with young audiences. Long live co-operation, a sense of fun and imagination.
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The Wheels on the Bus
Jan Ormerod and Lindsey Gardiner
Oxford University Press
We start with the opening lines of the favourite song and then it’s the action off the bus rather than on it that is the focus of attention, for the bus (sporting its zebra stripes) is heading for a wildlife park. Therein we and the passengers can see (and join in the action of) springing gazelles, singing, ringing birds in the trees,  howling, yowling wolf cubs, tumbling, bouncing, baboons, splashing pouncing otters, mud-loving hippos  wallowing and rolling, dashing leaping cheetahs, trot trotting llamas, slow moving sloths beaming in the trees and last of all as the sun goes down, leaping lemurs … as the wheels of the bus just keep on turning all day long.  Despite the sleepy looking passengers on the final spread, the whole emphasis is on movement and sound; both of which young audiences will delight in joining in with.
A lovely variation on the early years favourite for nurseries and playgroups in particular, it’s great for both language and physical development.
Why not try adding a basket of musical instruments alongside and letting children choose which ones to use to represent each animal and its antics.
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