My Nana’s Garden

My Nana’s Garden
Dawn Casey and Jessica Courtney-Tickle
Templar Books

This is one of the most beautiful picture books about love and loss I’ve seen in a long time.

The little girl narrator visits her beloved grandmother through the different seasons of the year. Together they savour the joys of the tangly weeds or ‘wild flowers’ as Nana insists; harvest the bounties of fruit trees and wonder at the wealth of minibeasts and small animals that find their way among the jungle of brightly coloured flora.

There’s a crooked tree that’s home for an owl and a multitude of other creatures.

Evening is a lovely time too with both starlight and light from their bonfire to illuminate them as the two snuggle up together and bask in the warmth.

In late summer there’s an abundance of fruits, vegetables and seeds to collect,

but with the onset of autumn Nana starts to look frail.

Come winter it’s clear that like her garden, Nana is fading, letting go her hold on life and by the time her garden is clad in snow, only a robin sits on her chair. (A nod to John Burningham by Jessica perhaps there.)

The wheel of life never stops turning and eventually a tiny snowdrop peeps through. The little girl realises, that along with that revolving circle, her precious memories go on and on. Grandma is still there in the blossom on the trees, the smiling faces of the flowers, the starlit bonfire and in the wild abundance of all that flourishes in her garden. A garden that is now a refuge too, and a place wherein we see evidence of other changes in the narrator’s family.

Tremendous sensitivity is inherent in both Dawn’s lyrical rhyming text and the rich tapestry of flora and fauna and the Nana/child relationship shown in Jessica’s illustrations, which together epitomise that ‘a garden is a lovesome thing’.

Love From Alfie McPoonst, The Best Dog Ever

Love From Alfie McPoonst, The Best Dog Ever
Dawn McNiff and Patricia Metola
Walker Books

This is a totally adorable book despite the sadness of its themes – coping with death and finding a way to express loss. The death is of the beloved pet dog Alfie, now in Dog Heaven.

From there, on ‘The Nicest Cloud’ to be precise, he sends little Izzy letters in the post. This location so he says is ‘BRILLIANT’ – with lots of parks, a surfeit of sticks and dog treats by the million. Moreover scaring wolves and chasing postmen are allowed; there’s a distinct lack of bullying moggies, no need for baths and Alfie can show off his special trick to a highly appreciative, exclusively canine, audience. He can even indulge his taste for cowpats.

Of course Alfie misses all the tickles and huggles from his little human but there are compensatory snuggles with his ‘dog-mum’.

When Izzy reads of the dog fluff Alfie has left behind, she collects it up and puts it into a special ‘I’ll never forget you’ locket, and writes to tell him about it too.

In this way, the little child is helped to grieve and come to terms with her loss.

The author, Dawn McNiff was a bereavement counsellor before becoming a writer and this thoughtfully created story is a real heartstrings tugger that will help young children through the grieving process.

Equally moving are Patricia Metola’s slightly quirky illustrations that show both the human world and Dog Heaven.

Waiting for Wolf

Waiting for Wolf
Sandra Dieckmann
Hodder Children’s

Have a box of tissues at the ready when you read this new Sandra Dieckmann picture book.

Good friends Fox and Wolf pass their time happily by the lake, talking, laughing and sometimes taking a dip.

One day as they sit together, Wolf entreats his friend “promise you’ll always remember this perfect day.”

As night falls, Wolf tenderly embraces Fox telling him quietly, “Tomorrow I will be starlight.” Content, but unsure what he means, Fox lets it be.

The following morning she goes out in the hope of finding her friend sparkling like a star but of Wolf there is no sign.

That evening Fox goes to their favourite lakeside place, still waiting and hoping to see Wolf. Could he be up in the sky, wonders Fox as she gazes at the twinkling stars.

She decides to climb up the mountain towards the brightest star in the firmament and on reaching the top calls out her friend’s name but all around is silence.

Reaching up Fox takes hold of the blanket of stars and enfolds herself within. Once more, in a soft whisper now, she asks, “Wolf are you there?”

Now deep inside knowing that her friend has gone, she lets her tears flow;

but then she sees something amazing in the darkness and she recalls Wolf’s words on their final day together. Back comes a stream of happy memories and as Fox replaces the star blanket, a feeling of peace takes its place, and with it an understanding of her friend’s talk of starlight.

Sandra Diekmann’s deeply affecting story of love and loss is stunningly illustrated. With exquisite details of the flora and fauna, every spread is breath-takingly beautiful. The sight of Fox enveloping herself in the starry blanket left me with a lump in my throat; her sense of loss is truly palpable.

What better book than this to open discussion about bereavement and coming to terms with it?

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.

Tibble and Grandpa

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mum’s Jumper

Mum’s Jumper
Jayde Perkin
Book Island

This is a book that explores the nature of grief.

A mother dies but for the child narrator and her dad, life must go on.
Her mother’s absence feels like a dark cloud that is always hovering close by, and makes concentration at school difficult. No matter how kind other people are, the overwhelming feeling is of being alone, angry even, at times.

Her father explains that the constant ache she feels is the way grief engulfs a person who has lost someone very dear to them; he too feels it.

While sorting out her mother’s belongings the girl comes upon a much-loved jumper. Along with her father’s words of solace, it’s adopting that snuggly warm garment that helps her begin to find a way through those dark days.

Grief, Dad says, ‘is like Mum’s jumper. The jumper stays the same size, but I will eventually grow into it.’

After some time, her world does enlarge around her grief and she feels able to put her treasured possession out of sight, safe in the knowledge that it, like her mother, will always be there; for she’s a part of everything and everywhere, and most important she’s there inside forever.

Grief is a very personal thing and Jayde Perkins’ illustrations for this book are heartfelt. (Her own mother died of cancer) and here she puts into her art (and words) some of the feelings that a young grieving child might have.

I’d like to see this ultimately uplifting book in every primary classroom; and I’d definitely offer it to anybody who has, or knows, a young child coping with the loss of a parent or close family member.

The Immortal Jellyfish

The Immortal Jellyfish
Sang Miao
Flying Eye Books

‘A boy and his grandpa sat drawing one afternoon.’ So begins Sang Miao’s first book as both author and illustrator in which at the start we see the two together as they share a conversation about a special kind of jellyfish and immortality.

Not long after, the boy learns that his beloved grandfather has died and that night he feels lost.

In a dream his grandfather returns and takes him along on his very last journey, beneath the ocean to a yellow door.

Beyond the door is his destination, The Life Transfer City.

This dream world is a place where those who have died choose a spirit creature to become that will live on in memory. There, after meeting some of the other choosers, boy and old man must part company.

Miao’s dream world is alive with spirit animals and strange-looking fungi illustrated in an arresting colour palette giving a surreal feel to the whole place, a place wherein the end of life offers a new beginning as something or someone altogether different.

Whether or not reincarnation fits into your worldview, with its themes of death and rebirth, this is a powerful, uplifting story, told with the utmost sensitivity that should be of great help to grieving children and their families.

No Longer Alone

No Longer Alone
Joseph Coelho and Robyn Wilson-Owen
Egmont

My heart really went out to the so-called shy, quiet little girl narrator of this beautiful story.
Actually however, those who’ve called her either of these are wrong; it’s just that due to events that have gone before she just doesn’t feel like talking or being noisy.

Nor does she feel like running around in the park with her siblings;

instead she wants to be alone, even though her loving, understanding Dad encourages her to try and find the “old you, the get-up-and-go you. The loud –and-active you, the happy you, the you, you used to be,”

Dad’s comments open the floodgates  for an outpouring of feelings as his little daughter opens up about the things that worry her, upset her and make her feel alone.

As the two sit together something shifts inside our narrator and things begin to feel a bit different.

Then slowly, slowly she finds that she can be that chatty self with others as well as when she’s alone; and she can play with her sisters again, sharing feelings and imaginings, alone no more.

Joseph’s beautiful heartfelt, poetic telling is full of poignancy and Robyn Wilson-Owen captures the inherent turmoil and tenderness in the tale with her beautifully textured illustrations of a family whose loss is palpable.

Cloud Forest

Cloud Forest
Victoria Turnbull
Frances Lincoln Children’s Books

This is an absolutely beautiful, gentle but powerful story of love and of loss.

Umpa’s garden is the young child narrator’s favourite place, filled as it is with flowers and fruit trees. Umpa shows his grandchild how to plant seeds and watch them grow. He also plants stories in her mind, stories of imagined worlds – wonderful new places they can travel to together; places that, fuelled by the imagination can stay with you forever.

Time passes; Umpa grows older

and eventually he dies.

His distraught grandchild grieves, “The clouds had swallowed me whole’ she tells us.

Then one day, she remembers: his legacy lives on …

and he will always be there in her heart and in her memories of those treasured experiences they shared together.

Books and stories have transformative powers: Victoria’s new book is a wonderful reminder of that, showing some of the myriad ways those powers can help to heal, to bond people together, as well as to fuel the imagination. The softness of the story is evoked in her beautiful pastel colour palette, her graceful lines and the fluidity of her images. Do spend time on every spread; there is so much to see and feel.

A book to share and to cherish.

The Sea Saw

 

The Sea Saw
Tom Percival
Simon & Schuster

Tom Percival always hits the sweet spot with his picture books and with this one he’s truly aced it – again.

When Sofia, on a visit to the seaside with her dad, loses her beloved teddy bear she’s totally distraught. The old, tatty object has been passed from her grandfather to her mother (whom one presumes is dead) and then to little Sofia and she’d thought of it more as a friend than a soft toy. In their dash out of the rainstorm said bear falls from an open bag and is left alone on the beach, unseen except by the Sea.

The Sea takes on the role of guardian of the bear, and the search for Sofia begins.

Meanwhile at home, Sofia’s father makes exhaustive enquiries and the two of them return to the beach but all to no avail; all that remains of Sofia’s precious bear apart from memories, is his blue scarf from which she snips a tiny piece to keep in her locket.

Back with the Sea, the hunt continues in earnest with Bear being borne through the water with the aid of marine creatures, surviving hazardous conditions and enjoying more restful periods too. All this takes years and eventually the bear is carried along rivers and a stream,

where it’s spied floating along by a young girl; a young girl who turns out to be Sofia’s granddaughter.

Finally a joyful reunion takes place and as Tom tells us almost at the close, ‘nothing is ever truly lost if you keep it in your heart.’

I doubt many readers will be able to finish this book without having tears in their eyes, a lump in their throat and a happy smile; it’s so moving and SO beautifully constructed. What a wonderful, heart-warming way to think about loss while never completely losing sight of the possibility of reunion.

Such sublime illustrations; every one is to linger over and return to; some send shivers down your spine. Absolutely awesome: another must have book from local-to-me, author/artist, Tom.

The Afterwards

The Afterwards
A.F. Harrold and Emily Gravett
Bloomsbury Children’s Books

Let me say at the outset, this is a remarkable book; intensely moving and quite unlike anything else, even the author’s previous stories, The Imaginary and The Song From Somewhere Else.

The story starts with best friends Ember and Ness who are pretty much inseparable but then comes an announcement in school assembly. There’s been an accident in the park and one of the pupils has died; it’s Ness.

For Ember, the world is unimaginable without her bestest buddy. Then, through another grieving person, she becomes aware of a strange grey afterworld and there she finds Ness again. Can she bring her back? That is Ember’s plan but should she fail, it seems she too will have to remain in that eerie place, leaving behind her Dad and Penny, his partner.

The push and pull between the two worlds presents Ember with a dilemma that is unbearable, especially when she discovers that Ness is not the only one of those she loves in the netherworld.

I’ll say no more about the story itself except that I urge you to read it.

A.F. Harrold’s writing is totally gripping, dark, profound, occasionally scary, and suffused with grief; but it’s also full of love and tenderness, and there’s hope too. There’s also a cat that keeps putting in an appearance. Does that sound a little familiar?

Emily Gravett’s powerfully atmospheric illustrations provide the perfect complement to the text, making one’s reading experience of The Afterwards feel like a seamless whole.

Short Fiction Roundup: A Case for Buffy / Dear Professor Whale / Corey’s Rock

A Case for Buffy
Ulf Nilsson, illustrated by Gitte Spee
Gecko Press

Detective Gordon (a philosophical elderly toad) returns with a final case to solve. This, the most important one in his whole career, sees him and young detective, cake-loving mouse Buffy attempting to solve a mystery that takes them to the very edge of the forest as they endeavour to discover the whereabouts of Buffy’s missing mother. In their search, they’re aided by two very new recruits,

who accompany the detectives, as they follow clues across a mountain and over water, all the way to Cave Island.

There’s an encounter with Gordon’s arch-enemy, a wicked fox who might or might not make a meal of one of the detectives.
All ends satisfactorily and there’s a sharing of cake – hurrah!

I’ve not encountered this charming series before but this one is a gentle little gem made all the more so by Gitte Spee’s whimsical illustrations.

Read aloud or read alone, either way it’s a delight.

Dear Professor Whale
Megumi Iwasa, illustrated by Jun Takabatake
Gecko Press

Professor Whale is now the only whale remaining at Whale Point and thus feels more than a little bit lonely. He remembers the days when he was surrounded by friends and they participated in the Whale Point Olympics.
In an attempt to find some new friends the Prof. sends out letters to ‘Dear You, Whoever You Are, Who Lives on the Other Side of the Horizon’ His only reply comes from Wally, grandson of an old friend. After getting over his initial disappointment, Professor Whale is inspired, to organise, with Wally’s help another Whale Point Olympics. It’s full of exciting events such as The Seal Swimming Race and The Penguin Walking race and there’s also a Whale Spouting Contest.

Friendship and kindness abound in this gentle tale, a follow-up to Yours Sincerely, Giraffe, which I’m not familiar with. However after enjoying this warm-hearted story, I will seek it out. With it’s abundance of amusing black and white illustrations,

It’s just right for those just flying solo as readers.

Corey’s Rock
Sita Brahmachari and Jane Ray
Otter-Barry Books

After the death of her young brother Corey, ten year old Isla and her parents leave their Edinburgh home and start a new life in the Orkney islands.
So begins a heart-wrenching story narrated by Isla wherein she discovers an ancient Orcadian selkie legend.

This becomes significant in her coming to terms with her loss and adjusting to her new life.

It’s beautifully, at times poetically written, interweaving elements of Isla’s dual heritage, folklore, the Hindu belief in reincarnation, coming to terms with loss, making new friends, family love, rebuilding lives and more.

Equally beautiful are Jane Ray’s illustrations that eloquently capture the tenderness, beauty and the magic of the telling.

This is a treasure of a book that deserves a wide audience and at the right time, could help grieving families come to terms with their own loss.

The Garden of Hope

The Garden of Hope
Isabel Otter and Katie Rewse
Caterpillar Books

Isabel Otter and Katie Rewse have created a touchingly beautiful picture book story of loss, love, sadness, hope, transformation and beauty.

Maya’s mum is no longer on the scene (we’re not told if she has died or absent from the family home). Those remaining though – Dad, Maya and dog Pip are feeling bad and seem surrounded by desolation; that’s certainly so in the now overgrown garden.

Dad struggles to keep things going; Maya’s loneliness is in part compensated by Pip’s company but still she feels the loss, despite Dad’s stories.

One day when Maya feels particularly sad he tells her a story about Mum, relating how her remedy for down days was to go outside, plant seeds and wait for them to grow, by which time her worries would be replaced by something of beauty.

On the table are some packets of seeds.

A decision is made: it’s time to transform that neglected garden.

Little by little Maya prepares the ground for planting, her first seeds being Mum’s favourite sunflowers. Gradually along with the burgeoning plants, gardening releases something in Maya, allowing calming thoughts to grow.

From time to time, Dad too takes comfort in gardening alongside his little girl. Lightness grows and with it some happiness. The flowers bloom attracting tiny creatures,

then larger ones until the entire garden is alive with hums, buzzes, flutters, flowers and, the first bursting of transcendent hope and … joy.

In a similar way Mum’s absence has left gaps in the family’s life, the author leaves gaps in the story for readers to fill. Her heart-stirring telling has a quiet power that is echoed in Katie Rewse’s graceful scenes.

Poignant, powerful: an understated gem.

A Stone for Sascha

A Stone for Sascha
Aaron Becker
Walker Books

I could just write a single word in response to this story– awesome – but that wouldn’t help those who have yet to encounter Aaron Becker’s new wordless picture book. Nor would it do justice to his remarkable lyrical endeavour.
My initial reading called to mind two poems of T.S. Eliot, the first being the opening line of East Coker: ‘In my beginning is my end.

In Becker’s beginning we see a girl collecting flowers and discover they’re an offering for her beloved dog, Sascha’s grave.

The family – mother father, daughter and son – then leave home for a seaside camping holiday.
As night begins to fall the girl heads to the water’s edge and we see her standing beneath a starry sky about to throw a smooth stone.

Thereafter, time shifts and what follows are spreads of a meteor hurtling earthwards to become embedded in the ocean floor and we witness the evolution of our planet as the stone works its way upwards and out, as life transitions from water to land, dinosaurs roam and then give way to early mammalian forms.

Having broken the surface as an enormous protrusion, the stone is quarried and transported to a huge ancient royal edifice where it’s carved into an obelisk.

Wars, looting, fragmentation and remodelling occur as the stone moves through history becoming part of first a religious monument, then a bridge; is fashioned into a fantastical dragon and placed in an ornate carved chest; taken to an island and installed in a chieftain’s dwelling, stolen,

lost at sea and eventually, having moved through eons of time, is polished smooth and carried by the waves to the shore where stands the girl who finds it.

Now, as she presses the stone to her cheek she appears to have made peace with the situation and perhaps, her loss and grief.

The stone’s final resting place – as far as this story goes – is atop Sascha’s gravestone.
(You can also trace the whole journey through the timeline maps that form the endpapers.)

Becker’s layered pastel spreads – digitally worked I think – have in the present time, a near photographic, quality. The scenes of bygone eras where the degree of sfumato intensifies are, in contrast imbued with a dreamlike quality, being as Leonardo da Vinci said of the technique he too employed, ‘ without lines or borders’.

This intensely moving, unforgettable, multi-layered, circular tale is open to countless interpretations and reinterpretations depending on what we bring to the book, at any particular time. Assuredly, it makes this reviewer think about our own place in the cosmos and our connection to past and future, for to return once more to T.S. Eliot:
Time present and time past / Are both perhaps present in time future, / And time future contained in time past.’
Burnt Norton

The Day War Came

The Day War Came
Nicola Davies and Rebecca Cobb
Walker Books

I came back home after a few days away to find this book waiting; it was the day we heard about the egregious separation of children from their parents at the US border, so it was especially moving. It is also Refugee Week as I read/write this – even more timely and heartbreakingly pertinent, especially as I think of my Syrian friends who fled their home country from war a couple of years ago and are now happy and their two children loving their primary school in Stroud. No lack of chairs there.

Nicola Davies wrote the text, a poem, as a response to her anger at our government’s refusal to allow 3000 refugee children to enter the UK in 2016. A poem that began the 3000 chairs campaign for which artists contributed pictures of chairs, symbolic of a seat in a classroom, education, kindness and the hope of a future.

For those who didn’t read the poem when it was published in the Guardian, it’s a spare text narrated by a little girl from a country, perhaps Syria, blighted by war whose day starts normally – breakfast with her family and then school where in the morning, she learns about volcanoes, draws a picture of a bird and sings a song of tadpoles.

After lunch though comes war, destroying her school, her home, her town,

leaving her alone, bloody and tattered.

Somehow she makes it to a boat and thence to a beach and then to a camp. “But war had followed me. / it was underneath my skin, / behind my eyes, / and in my dreams. / It had taken possession of my heart,” she says.

Nicola Davies is a fine weaver of words; her text is heart-wrenchingly powerful and ultimately, redemptive – having initially been turned away from a school classroom because there was no chair for her, one is supplied by a little boy,

whose friends do likewise … as the children walk together, “Pushing / back the war / with every step.”

Rebecca Cobb has done an outstanding job with the illustrations. Her watercolour, crayon and pastel pictures – scenes of destruction, flight and desolation, all too familiar to us from TV news bulletins, have a heightened poignancy so rendered, and are all the more powerful viewed together with her images of normal life in home, street and classroom.
All her characters are incredibly expressive both facially and in their body language, and the little girl is the very embodiment of the poem’s narrator.

A must read book for anyone who values humanity.

£1 from every copy of the book sold will go to the HelpRefugees charity.

It’s Raining and I’m Okay / Remembering Lucy

It’s Raining and I’m Okay
Adele Devine and Quentin Devine
Jessica Kingsley Publishing

Children with autism frequently show distress when unexpected changes are made to their routines. Now here’s a little book with bold, uncluttered illustrations to help such youngsters feel less anxious particularly when out and about.
The text takes the form of a little girl’s first person rhyming narrative wherein she tells how she uses focused breathing and other techniques to help her through such experiences as waiting in a long queue, going into a crowded café with challenges including spilling her drink and worrying about the consequences, an over-chatty adult and a noisy hand-dryer.

At the back of the book are details of additional resources that can be downloaded to further support emotional literacy.
Particularly useful with ASD children; but the focused breathing technique is helpful for all anxiety-prone youngsters.

Remembering Lucy
Sarah Helton and Anna Novy
Jessica Kingsley Publishers

Coping with the death of a classmate is extremely difficult whether or not a child has special needs, but often children attending a SEND school find a bereavement can be confusing and sometimes, overwhelming.
In this story young Joe talks about his particular school and friends; and in particular the death of his friend Lucy: what it meant for him and his classmates and how he coped.
Remembering is his key, for Joe tells how photographs and talking help him bring to mind the good times especially; times shared in messy painting or dressing up for instance. ‘As time goes by’ he says, ‘you will be able to think of the fun and happy times … rather than just feeling sad they are no longer there. … remembering her makes me smile.

The final seven pages are a user’s guide aimed at adults and contain lots of helpful suggestions for what to do whilst reading the book and afterwards, not only immediately afterwards but in the longer term for as the authors remind us ‘… supporting children with loss and grief isn’t a one-off event… children will re-grieve at different points in their lives … Our support needs to be ongoing.’
A down-to-earth, sensitively written and illustrated book to have on the shelves of any school where there are SEND pupils.

Sam and Jump

Sam and Jump
Jennifer K.Mann
Walker Books
Many young children form a special bond with one of their soft toys. Sam’s very best friend is Jump, his soft toy rabbit; they’re pretty much inseparable.
One day they go to the beach where they meet Thomas. Sam and Thomas spend the whole day playing together …

and have such a great time that Sam leaves Jump behind, forgotten on the beach.
When he reaches home, Sam realises Jump isn’t with him. It’s too late to go back but his mum promises they’ll go and search for him the following morning. Sam passes a miserable evening and a worried night and early next day, Mum drives him back. But there’s no sign of Jump anywhere. Nothing is fun without him. But then suddenly, standing right there on the beach is …

A gentle tale of abandonment, loss, friendship and love is simply and tenderly told and illustrated with great sensitivity in watercolour and pencil. By leaving plenty of white space around her images, Mann focuses the audience’s attention on the interactions between characters, and on the feelings of each individual; and the use of blue-grey backgrounds after Jump is left behind underline Sam’s feelings of distress.

A small book that offers much to think about and discuss.

I’ve signed the charter  

A Story Like the Wind

A Story Like the Wind
Gill Lewis and Jo Weaver
Oxford University Press
Gill Lewis has woven a wonderful novella with an up-to-the-minute feel to it. Stories of the refugee crisis continue to feature in the news with desperate people continuing to attempt seemingly impossible journeys in inflatable boats: this fable is such a one and this particular boat is filled with hopeful passengers young and old, ‘clutching the remains of their lives in small bags of belongings.’ The boat’s engine has failed and the boat is adrift on the Mediterranean; but the passengers, their resources dwindling minute by minute, are alive. Even so, they are willing to share what they have. Among them is fourteen year old Rami: he has no food to share so he refuses what the others offer him. What he does have though, is his precious violin: fragile; intricate; beautiful.

I took the only thing I could not leave behind,” he tells the others when asked why he refuses their offers.
Tell us a story to see us through the night,” requests mother of two young children, Nor.
What Rami performs for those beleaguered passengers is, so he tells them a story of Freedom, a story like the wind, a story that begins on the highest plains of the Mongolian desert, known as the ‘land of a million horses’. His story – essentially a Mongolian folktale about a young shepherd and a white stallion that he rescues as a foal, – is powerful, drawing in each and every listener (and readers) and as it progresses part by part, the passengers make connections with their own lives. Carpet seller, Mohammad tells of trying to sell a flying carpet to the woman who is now his wife. Others too have stories to tell but eventually, Rafi’s magical telling is done. It’s brought his audience together in a shared bond of happy memories, of sadness for those they’ve loved and lost, but most of all, of freedom and hope.

With what I fear is an increase in overt racism, in hate crimes and fascism, not only here in the UK, but also in many other parts of the world, this affecting book deserves, (I’d like to say needs), to be shared widely and discussed anywhere people come together in groups.
Music has the power to transform – that is clear from the story;

and it’s something many of us know from experience: so too do words. Let’s hope Gill Lewis’s poignant words here can work the same magic as those of Rami. They certainly moved me to tears several times as I read. But let’s not forget the power of pictures: they too can bring us together, sometimes in shared understanding, sometimes, shared appreciation or awe. Seamlessly integrated into the story, and adding to the sense of connectedness, Jo Weaver’s illustrations rendered in blue-grey shades are at once atmospheric, evocative and intensely moving, as befits the telling.

I’ve signed the charter  

The Building Boy / Here Comes Mr Postman

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The Building Boy
Ross Montgomery and David Lichfield
Faber Children’s Books
This is a powerfully moving story at the heart of which lies the relationship between a boy and his Grandma who had once been an award-winning architect. Before bedtime in the house they shared, the two would snuggle together and Grandma would show her grandson photographs of buildings she’d designed.

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That was all in the past but now, she had plans for a wonderful new house she’d build with his help – a home the two would share.
Grandma, all the while is growing ever more frail and one day when he returns home, the boy finds she has died. The lad is overcome with grief.
Such is his love for his gran however, the boy is driven to carry on building. He works on a huge robotic-looking structure somewhat akin to The Iron Woman,

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a seeming reincarnation of his Gran; and she has plans … plans for an amazing journey the two will undertake together …

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Where that journey ultimately leads is to a deeply affecting finale – a place wherein the spirit of his beloved Grandma will forever reside …

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David Lichfield, who demonstrated his artistic brilliance in The Bear and the Piano imbues this enigmatic tale of love, loss and finding your calling with a sense of awe and wonder. His use of dark and light transports readers to that dreamlike place where anything is possible and the unbelievable becomes believable …

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What an inspired partnering of author/artist this was and the result is a book that will linger long in the mind.

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Here Comes the Postman
Marianne Dubuc
Book Island
It’s Monday morning and with cart loaded, Mr Postmouse sets off on his rounds. We join him as he delivers letters and parcels to all manner of unlikely animal recipients. The story itself is a straightforward description of the various stopping places but the illustrations are absolutely crammed with quirky details as we look into each home visited. It’s no easy round for Mr P has to scale heights …

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and dive deep …

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to complete his round and every stop provides readers an opportunity to peep inside the huge variety of residences and see for instance Dad Rabbit busy preparing a meal, a Crocodile languishing in the bath and another enjoying a book (and a nibble),and some bats – errr – dangling.
After all the hard work, there’s one package left in Mr Postmouse’s cart and it’s a very special delivery he has to make – to his small son, Pipsqueak whose birthday it is.
This is definitely a book to share and to pore over: I can see a fair bit of time being spent over each and every location Mr P delivers to. Terrific fun.

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Oscar the Guardian Cat

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Oscar the Guardian Cat
Chiara Valentina Segré and Paolo Domeniconi
Ragged Bears
This is a story of a cat, a very special one and it’s based on the true story of Oscar the cat that lives in a Rhode Island care home. Here in this lovely book, Oscar takes the role of narrator and he describes how he carries out his many, important guardian duties visiting each and every one of the home’s residents every morning; and after his afternoon nap, he spends the evenings, keeping watch in the dining room. Oscar introduces several of the home’s residents – ‘grandparents’ Oscar calls them assigning them names according to the traits he sees in them: there’s the silent Lady Lisa and Mr Weakhead, ‘a real chatterbox’ and some of the staff – there’s the slightly scary but kind hearted head nurse, Dolores …

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and Doctor Goodhelp.
Oscar has a special ability – a kind of tacit knowing of ‘the right time’ when one of the residents is about to die. Then he jumps up onto the bed purring, comforting and signalling to the staff to contact relatives, letting them know the end is imminent.
The practicalities of death are dealt with by assigning to it a metaphorical presence, Mewt, seen only by Oscar: Mewt takes a different form for each visit. For Mr Weakhead, it is a blonde haired girl …

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who looks very like the photograph on the bedside table. Oscar stands guard watching as, hand in hand with Mewt, a smiling Mr Weakhead, rises from the bed, flies out of the window and off towards the setting sun.

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Written and illustrated with great sensitivity and the occasional touch of humour, this is a book that will offer comfort to children who have a grandparent close to the end, or has recently died. It is likely to provide a way to talk about a particular loss as well as death in general. The softly textured illustrations have both a luminescence and a three dimensional quality, the combination of which makes them powerfully affecting.

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Loss and Leaving: Shine & Double Happiness

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Shine
Trace Balla
Allen & Unwin
Most writers of books about death for children use fiction as a vehicle and in so doing, provide a ‘space apart’ wherein youngsters can explore this disturbing and difficult experience. As we know however, all story grows out of life, indeed all life is story and Trace Balla’s story was written for her sister’s children shortly after the death of their father and is, so we are told, based on the great love shared between their parents and the love they in turn shared with their children.
“We all come from the stars, we all go back to the stars…” so said Granny Hitchcock, grandmother of the author and her bereaved sister and it’s this saying that is at the heart of Trace Balla’s story.
Shine , so called because his kindness made him sparkly and shimmery, was a young horse that grew to become an amazing one that loved to gallop among the golden stars with the other horses. One day Shine notices some hoofprints in the sand belonging to another horse, the lovely Glitter and together they raise a family. Their little ones are called Shimmer and Sparky and there grows a great bond of love between all the family members.
But then, one day Shine learns that it’s his turn to return to his star. “… my time has come. I love you all so much,” he tells his family as he leaves them to join the other stars in the beautiful night sky.

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That night a heart-broken Glitter and her offspring cry and cry creating an ocean of golden tears. They together then climb a high mountain – a mountain of grief – from the top of which they are able to see and come to understand the enormity of the love they shared.

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And, as they curl up together, far above them shines the brightest of all the stars, their daddy’s star glowing golden and bringing them a sense of peace.
Trace Balla’s use of mythical horse characters that have no solidity works well as signifiers of life’s transient nature whereas the dark solidity of the huge mountain is perhaps, a metaphor of the process of grieving itself: a process that is likely to be very hard and take an enormous amount of time to climb, but which can ultimately be transcended by joy and the power of love in the world.
Yes, this is a book about loss but it also offers children an invitation to think about the possibility of light emerging from darkness, an idea that should fit with any world view. Indeed the restricted colour palette – shades of blue plus white and yellow are effectively used to symbolise the opposing concepts light/dark, life/death, love/loss, happiness/sadness.
In addition to being a book to offer young children who have suffered the loss of a loved one, particularly a parent, this powerfully affecting story has enormous potential for opening up discussions on a number of topics with a whole class or group.

Moving home can also be a very sad time especially for children who have to leave behind their friends and perhaps relations too. Here is a book in which two children cope with the transition helped by their loving family.

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Double Happiness
Nancy Tuper Ling and Alina Chau
Chronicle Books
The book takes the form of a series of twenty four poems relating to moving from a city (San Francisco) to a new rural home. Sister and brother Gracie and Jack both give voice to their feelings as they search for special things to place in their happiness boxes intended to help with the move:
Find four treasures each/leading from this home/to your new.”says their grandmother(Nai Nai) who has given them to boxes
Gracie’s first treasure is donated by Nai Nai, her panda toy – he too is to have a new home.

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But it’s Jack who is first to fill his box, his last object being a blue and green marble.

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Alina Chau’s delicate, detailed watercolour paintings grace the pages, serving to bring the whole thing together into a bitter-sweet account of the family’s transition from old home to new and all that it entails: a looking back and a looking forward – memory and anticipation …

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Exciting event at Piccadilly Waterstones 23rd-29th October – don’t miss it if you are in London: Children’s Book Illustration Autumn Exhibition            C090B987-9FD4-47C9-A6E5-CEEE0DD83F4E[6]

Exploring Big Ideas: Grandad’s Island & Alive Again

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Grandad’s Island
Benji Davies
Simon and Schuster Children’s Books pbk
Sometimes along comes a book that moves me to tears; this is such a one. It really tugs at the heartstrings as it tells how young Syd accompanies his beloved Grandad on a final journey. With Grandad at the helm,

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the two of them set forth on a tall ship across the ocean and its rolling waves to a far distant island. Abandoning his stick, Grandad leads Syd into the thick jungle where they come upon an old shack.

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Having made everything ‘shipshape’, the two of them sally forth to explore and come upon a perfect resting spot.

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It’s there that Grandad breaks the news to Syd that he is going to remain on the island, assuring him that he won’t feel lonely.
So, after a loving farewell, Syd returns home alone. It’s a lonesome journey and a long one and when Syd returns to Grandad’s house, there’s nobody there. But then he hears a tapping at the window and there, sent by special mail is …

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Poignantly beautiful both visually and verbally: Benji Davies has done it again.

 

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Alive Again
Ahmadreza Ahmadi and Nahid Kazemi
Tiny Owl
The well-regarded Iranian poet Ahmadi is the author of this seemingly simple, thought-provoking tale.
One by one, things that a boy loves disappear from his life: are they gone forever, he wonders. Can blossom, rain and wheat come back?

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They can and will, but each in its own good time.
The author’s spare prose allows children to create their own interpretations and fill the gaps left in the telling. Ahmadi gives the impression of being close to young children and the kinds of ideas that preoccupy them from time to time. Themes of change, loss, death, rebirth and renewal, and the cycles of nature

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are all possible ideas to explore having shared the reassuring book with young listeners.
As with all the Tiny Owl titles, the production is excellent and the illustrations superb. The collage style illustrator Nahid Kazemi used here has a child-like quality about it and is likely to inspire children’s own creative endeavours.

 

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A box of interesting fabrics, some decent backing paper, fine-line pens and glue is all that’s required.
A wonderful book for primary teachers looking to further children’s spiritual and imaginative development.

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Tricky Topics – Dementia and Death

Two unusual books dealing with difficult topics, dementia and death, that illustrate children’s creativity and impulse towards transcendence both self and situational and both presented through the eyes of children are:

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Really and Truly
Emilie Rivard and Anne-Claire Delise
Franklin Watts
Sensitive, gently humorous, tender, touching and warm are the words that immediately spring to mind, as well as tears to the eyes and a lump in the throat on reading this book.
The power of story and a message of hope come through strongly as Charlie, who is very close to his grandfather, tells how this fun-loving, wise, playful, story-telling person becomes changed through dementia. Lately, Charlie finds, Grandpa has no more jokes and no more stories; all he seems to do is gaze through the window at the cars driving past.

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An awful disease has eaten up his memory and his words. It has even swallowed up his smile.
So much does Charlie want to make Grandpa smile that he comes up with ‘storying’ to try and get something of his beloved grandfather back. Such is the boy’s determination, love and patience that he does indeed succeed in igniting sparks of the old Grandpa buried deep within as he responds to Charlie’s retelling of his stories when he doesn’t eat,

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smile or even recognize his grandson.
The richly detailed illustrations are cleverly conceived with the background colours reflecting the changing moods of Charlie and Grandpa, DSCN2136

while black ink is used to depict the fantastic pirate, witch, gnome, animals and Japanese ninja as they cavort across the pages and the imagination of the story participants.
Yes, this is an optimistic, spirited view but that’s the one children tend to adopt.
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Scarlett and the Scratchy Moon
Chris McKimmie
Allen & Unwin
Told from the viewpoint of the girl narrator (who but a young child would utter such purely poetic words as “ I had clouds in my eyes” ?),

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this gently and simply tells the story of the sadness associated with losing beloved pets and the sheer excitement of welcoming new ones into your family.
Scarlett can’t sleep.

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The moon is scratching the sky, and she’s busy counting sheep “Daddy Neema, Mummy Neema” and “three, Baby Neema.
She is feeling sad because her beloved pet dogs, Holly and Sparky, have died. But then, during breakfast the following morning, a knock at the door brings a wonderful surprise and the world seems fresh and full of joy again.

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Eclectic, scrap-book style illustrations created seemingly, by the entire McKimmie family though largely the author, with a whole host of different media including watercolour and acrylic paints, pastels, gouache, charcoal, grid paper, manuscript paper and much more, perfectly complement the wandering, slightly distracted, style of the narration.
A quirkily beautiful, honest, evocative portrayal of loss and new life. I can envisage young children being inspired to create their own imaginative visual narratives in response to this one.
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A book to make you laugh, a book to make you cry, a book to make you sing

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Monkey Business
Smriti Prasadam-Halls and David Wojtowycz
Orchard Books
We had the story of Major Trump’s missing knickers: now from the same partnership comes another of those books that quickly reduces early years audiences to uncontrolled giggles. Once again we are on board the ark and Mr Noah has been woken by cries from young monkey, Charlie Chatter who is in desperate need of a wee and has lost his potty. What group of under fives will be able to resist his opening speech?
“ Oh, bother my botty!
            Where,
          oh where,
          oh where
        is my potty?”
The thought of sitting on the toilet is too distressing for young Charlie so Mr Noah calls upon the other animals for some loo loving anecdotes. These win him over but when he finally heads for his bathroom, the door’s stuck fast. Will the result be a puddle on the floor? Fortunately not for it’s Mrs Noah on the other side doing a spot of DIY on the bathroom roof and guess what she had been using to catch all the drips… All’s well that ends well though and Charlie finally enters the little room for some very important and by then very urgent business.
David Wojtowycz’s bright exuberant illustrations are a real hoot and the perfect complement to the rib-tickling, rhyming text; I especially like the story-reading snakes sitting with their heads in books from the bathroom library; they won’t be out in a hurry then.
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The Memory Tree
Britta Teckentrup
Orchard Books
Fox has lived a long, happy life with his friends in the forest but one day he is tired and it is time for him to fall asleep – for ever. He goes to his favourite clearing and as the snow falls and slowly covers him, the other animals gather to remember him.

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Owl is the first to share his most precious memory of Fox and then, one by one, Squirrel, Weasel, Bear, Deer, Bird, Rabbit, Mouse and others talk of their favourite memories about Fox. As they do so, a little orange plant begins to peep through the snow and as each animals adds to the story telling, it grows bigger and stronger till in the morning it has become a small tree; and Fox’s friends know in their hearts he is still a part of them. Time passes, the tree grows with each new memory and finally it is large enough to shelter all the animals that had loved Fox: a strength-giving tree of memories and love.
Beautifully told without sentimentality, this book celebrates life, love and friendship. Teckentrup’s  illustrations in suitably subdued colours perfectly capture the sadness of the animals at the loss of their friend and their warmth as they  recount their memories of him. Every turn of the page is a delight.
A tearjerker? Yes if like me you are a bit of a softie but ultimately this is an uplifting book.
Recommended for family reading and a must buy for all primary schools and nursery settings. A lovely book to sit alongside Badger’s Parting Gifts.
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Octopus’s Garden
Ringo Starr and Ben Cort
Simon and Schuster
I defy you to read this book and listen to the accompanying CD without getting the classic number stuck in your brain. Apparently, Ringo Starr wrote it in 1968 when holidaying in Sardinia after a sea captain told him about how octopuses move around the seabed collecting objects. Ringo was taking time out from the Beatles and wanted to escape somewhere; what better place than under the sea?
Back to the book. Here we find a little boy gazing at his goldfish bowl from whence he is transported, along with four of his friends, to a wondrous sub- marine garden. There they ride on turtles, share a story read by their cephalopod host,

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cavort on the pillars of an ancient temple and much more.

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These joyous scenarios and others are brought into being in ‘Aliens Love Underpants’ artist, Ben Cort’s wonderful illustrations. These absolutely bubble over with the kind of exuberant fun that young children take delight in.
Share the story, listen to the song, listen again and your children will be joining in. Then they can follow the story with the book as it’s read aloud by Ringo. There are opportunities for movement too, when the tune is played over at the end.
Everyone loves the idea of a special place where they can take time out from the real world, away from any worries or niggles they might have and away from watchful adult eyes. This book offers an opportunity for you to invite children to think about and discuss the kind of place they would like to escape to.
I’d definitely include this in an early years sea theme collection and possibly leave a copy in an undersea role-play area for children to enjoy once they have had the book read to them. They (and you) will have to be adept at turning the book around on a couple of occasions, as the page layout becomes portrait to deepen the undersea experiences.
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