A Polar Bear in the Snow / In the Half Room

Here are two recent picture books from Walker Books kindly sent for review:

A Polar Bear in the Snow
Mac Barnett and Shawn Harris

In dramatic fashion a sleeping polar bear stirs, sniffs the air and sets forth on a walk the destination of which is known only to himself. Readers join him as he’s observed by seals, arctic foxes,

a human even

until, having traversed the snowy, icy landscape, he arrives at the startlingly blue sea.

Plunging in, the creature’s feeling playful as he enjoys frolicking amidst the fishes and fronds,

before clambering back onto the snow and continuing on his way.
Wither is he bound now? That is left for readers to ponder upon …

Splendidly playful: who can resist accompanying the polar protagonist in Mac Barnett’s spare narrative and Shawn Harris’s arresting torn paper art that’s cleverly layered to give the illustrations a three-dimensional effect, as the creature sallies forth on his walk.

In the Half Room
Carson Ellis

This is a somewhat surreal, enigmatic, rhyming bedtime book wherein Carson Ellis presents a moonlit room in which everything is carefully cut in half. We don’t see the entire setting initially; rather we’re shown a series of partial items – ‘Half chair/ Half hat / Two shoes, / each half / Half table / Half cat’.

Then, once the room has all the half items mentioned, comes ‘Half a knock on half a door’ and there stands the woman’s other half.

Having come together, she’s wholly ready to dash out to embrace the world beneath a starry sky.

Meanwhile, in through the door left ajar, comes half a cat

to participate with its other half in a half-cat fight’ after which the two entwine un-united, on the mat and fall asleep.

With bold images, this is wholly entertaining and intriguing though perhaps some youngsters will be left feeling just a tad bemused by such an offbeat offering.

Paolo Emperor of Rome

Paolo Emperor of Rome
Mac Barnett and Claire Keane
Abrams Books for Young Readers

One of the only ways we’re going to be able to visit Rome in the near future is through stories, so it’s particularly welcome to be transported there thanks to Mac Barnett and Claire Keane’s tale of dachshund Paolo, resident of that beautiful city.

Poor Paolo however is forced to spend most of his time stuck inside Signora Pianostrada’s busy hairdressing salon staring out through the shop door with little if anything to enjoy other than the occasional whiff of the great outdoors.

By night and most of the day Paolo would dream of escape.

Then one day an old lady leaves the shop door open and that’s when Paolo seizes his chance to break free.

Once in the wild streets he soon discovers a world of beauty, excitement and yes, danger, first in the form of a hostile feline among the ruins. His attitude to the moggy though is, ’The biggest among you has scratched my cheek, and I did not flinch. Will any other cat challenge me?’

They don’t, but then he encounters a pack of dogs as he searches for food. Antagonistic at first, they soon make him their leader and together they enjoy the city by night.

Next morning Paolo becomes a hero, saving six nuns from the Trevi Fountain. I can’t imagine how they managed to fall in, but the pooch becomes a hero.

Most important though with his indomitable spirit, he has succeeded in conquering the city.

I’ve not visited Rome for real for many years, but Mac’s narrative, together with Claire’s illustrations truly do evoke the sights, sounds and smells of this ancient city absolutely brilliantly: I love the brio of the telling, the textures of the scenes, and the portrayal of characters both animal and human, is sublime.

Somewhat reminiscent of the likes of Ludwig Bemelmans, this book has all the makings of a classic.

Just Because

Just Because
Isabelle Arsenault and Mac Barnett
Walker Books

Would that every young child had a parent as ready and willing to answer the seemingly endless string of questions as the father of the small girl in this book even though her “Why is the ocean blue?” ; “What is rain?”; “Why do leaves change colour?”

and the other posers she puts forward as she lies tucked under her duvet in the dark, are clearly in part a tactic for delaying bedtime.

Quality time is what he provides and never once does he find himself trotting out the titular ‘Just because’.

Instead his responses are flights of fancy: the ocean’s blueness is because ‘the fish take out guitars. They sing sad songs and cry blue tears’; rain is “The tears of flying fish”; Leaves change colour because “the trees keep warm by setting quiet little fires in their leaves? By winter, their branches have all burned up.” (I love that!).

The answers get increasingly and wonderfully outlandish: The reason dinosaurs disappeared is that “Millions of years ago thousands of asteroids fell on the earth. / But the dinosaurs had planned for this. They fastened themselves to big balloons, floated up to space, and stayed there.”

The ever-patient father’s benedictory finale is surely, pitch perfect to send his little daughter off into her own dream world at last.

Mac Barnett’s story takes creative thinking to a new level that will likely inspire youngsters to think up their own playful answers to the questions his child protagonist poses.

A perfect complement to the telling, Isabelle Arsenault’s mixed media illustrations have a retro feel, while the imaginary worlds she conjures forth are intricately detailed and full of wonderful whimsical otherworldly touches.


Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen
Walker Books

This is the final book in the Shape trilogy that featured first Triangle and then Square as main character; now it’s the turn of Circle.

One day at Circle’s suggestion, the three friends embark on a game of hide-and-seek. Circle stipulates one over arching rule: “No hiding behind the waterfall” because it’s dark there.

Circle completes her counting, only to learn from Square, who has remained static, that Triangle has gone behind the waterfall.

Off goes Circle to find him and as she goes deeper in, the double spreads gradually darken

until everything is black save Circle’s eyes.

Then out of the darkness another pair of eyes appears belonging, Circle assumes, to Triangle. She starts chastising her ‘friend’ but no answer is forthcoming.

There appears a third set of eyes and it’s these, it transpires, that belong to Triangle.

It turns out that the since Square is outside, the other eyes belong to they know not whom. Circle asks the shape before her once again, “Who are you?” and again receives no answer.

Circle and Triangle rush back in fright, back towards the light and the outside where Square is waiting.

Once safely back in the daylight, Circle ponders upon the identity of the shape; perhaps it wasn’t bad after all. “It might have been a good shape. We just could not see it,” she posits.

An important inherent message from Barnett in our xenophobic times no matter which side on the Atlantic we live on.

His story has an open ending, concluding with a question for readers. It does however suggest that we can perhaps overcome our fears by remaining calm and mindful, rather that letting them overwhelm us.

In his watercolour and pencil, digitally worked style illustrations, Klassen portrays the friends’ emotions with his characteristic minimalist, brilliance.

A book to ponder upon and discuss.


Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen
Walker Books

In a previous book we left Square obstructing the entrance to Triangle’s home and now he’s back moving in and out of his own secret abode hauling large rock cubes from his subterranean stash all the way up to the top of a hill. This he regards as his ‘work’.

One day while he’s thus engaged along comes Circle pronouncing him a “genius” and “sculptor”. Thinking his block sculpture to be a self-portrait, she commissions one of her, promising to return the following day. Now Square really does have a tricky undertaking: Circle is perfect.

Anxiously he sets to work but as the rain falls, Square’s far from perfect shape begins to disintegrate and come nightfall he’s surrounded by a circular pile of rubble into which the rain falls.

By now his anxiety is almost palpable and having determined to stay up all night, overwhelmed by despair, he falls fast asleep.

Morning comes and with it the realisation that he’s allowed himself to be beguiled by Circle’s talk of genius. There he stands in a large puddle surrounded by a circle of rubble.

Eager to set eyes on her portrait, Circle rolls along early and sees her reflection in the puddle.

Declaring it “perfect” she reaffirms Square’s genius and departs.

Barnett’s final throwaway ‘But was he really?’ leaves readers, and indeed Square, to ponder and make their own decisions, not the least of which are, what does it mean to be an artist? And, what is art?

With his characteristic minimalism Klassen imbues his art with humorous detail: the twig for instance that looks like a wilted aerial on Square’s head, and the way he just keels over in utter exhaustion, are superb.

Barnett’s brief, droll text, combined with Klassen’s illustrations make this a perfect offering for those who enjoy pondering upon and discussing philosophical questions. Community of Enquiry enthusiasts and artists in particular will love this, as indeed will anyone who enjoys the subtlety of this duo’s picture books.

The Wolf The Duck & The Mouse

The Wolf The Duck & The Mouse
Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen
Walker Books

There’s a fable-like, porquoi feel to Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen’s latest collaboration: think wolves, think howling at the moon.
One morning a mouse is gobbled by a wolf; its woeful cry disturbs a duck attempting to get some shut-eye in the belly of the wolf. The two breakfast together and strike up a friendship.

Their dialogue had me spluttering as the mouse asks, “Where did you get the jam? … And a tablecloth?” “I may have been swallowed but I have no intention of being eaten.” the duck assures the mouse. And over lunch preparations he reassuringly comments on the lack of fear of being swallowed by a wolf, leaving them to enjoy their creature comforts from the inside.
Comforts that include a record player and record for a celebratory dance, which has drastic effects on their host’s stomach; but for that the duck has a cure: “Eat a hunk of good cheese. And a flagon of wine! And some beeswax candles, ” he states.
Complying only worsens the wolf’s stomach ache: his moans are heard by a hunter whose target he becomes.
Now, quite suddenly all three animals must combine forces to save their lives and they do so in no uncertain terms …

convincing the hunter that “the woods are full of evil and wraiths.
The grateful wolf offers his saviours a favour, which they are delighted to accept …

Thereafter comes a kind of symbiotic existence between the main protagonists.
Barnett’s snappy narrative style with its repeated “Oh woe!” provides plenty of laugh out loud moments. In combination with Klassen’s mixed media collage-style illustrations the whole thing unfolds rather like a puppet theatre performance.
An off the wall, howlingly funny, brilliantly clever Barnett/Klassen offering, not to be missed at any cost.


Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen
Walker Books
Knowledge of a friend’s ophidiophobia is in part, the driving force behind Triangle’s foray from his home in his triangular neighbourhood, across a barren place of rocky humps ‘They were shapes with no names’ Barnett informs us; and on through the place of squares –

big, medium and small ones – to Square’s abode. All the while he’s been plotting the sneaky trick he’s about to play.
He walks right up Square’s door, whereupon he delivers a round of snake-like “HISS” sounds.
Square is momentarily petrified: Snake dissolves into paroxysms of laughter. A pregnant pause follows,

rapidly replaced on Square’s part by incandescent rage.
Thereupon the four-sided being chases the three-sider all the way back to his home. His shape however, prevents him from entering and there he stands stuck in the doorway and thus accidentally discovers Triangle’s nyctophobia.

I know you’re afraid of the dark. Now I have played a sneaky trick on you! You see, Triangle, this was my plan all along.” Hmm! I’m not so sure about that.
Klassen’s restrained earthy palette and minimalist scenes (those eloquent eyes again), are in perfect harmony with Barnett’s even sparer, deadpan text allowing readers to step into the narrative landscape and fill for themselves, the host of gaps left by the book’s genius creators.
Prankish play or something more sinister? I come down on the side of the former.
This book is the first of a planned trilogy from this formidable team: I eagerly anticipate the next one … and the next.

I’ve signed the charter 


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Leo a ghost story
Mac Barnett and Christian Robinson
Chronicle Books
Leo is a house ghost – we readers can see him but others can’t. He’s been in his current residence for years, drawing and reading,

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but one spring day a new family moves in and Leo becomes a host ghost. His efforts definitely aren’t appreciated by the incomers who immediately decide the house is haunted and call in all manner of exorcists.

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Leo decides to move out anyway and goes a-roaming in the city. People walk past or even through him until his wanderings eventually result in an encounter with a young pavement artist, Jane who mistakes him for an imaginary friend.

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If I tell her I am a ghost, I will scare her away,” he fears.
Then late at night a thief enters Jane’s home, Leo apprehends him by donning traditional ghostly garb

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and finally gains acceptance as the being he truly is.
Christian Robinson’s wonderful retro-style illustrations, executed with collage and paint in suitably spectral shades work so well in combination with author Mac Barnett’s  matter of fact, economic narrative style: ‘ A squad car came and hauled the man off the jail. That was that.’ he comments when the thief is taken by the police.

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And, “Jane I told you a lie. I am a ghost … I am just your real friend.” “Oh!” said Jane. “Well that’s even better.
This is a wonderfully wise, warm story of friendship and acceptance, and a great one for sharing at this, or any time of the year, especially accompanied by honey toast and mint tea.

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The Mystery of the Haunted Farm
Elys Dolan
Nosy Crow
Newly moved into the farm, Farmer Grey is more than a little discombobulated by the phantoms that seem to have invaded his residence during his somnambulatory activities.

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So, the terrified fellow calls in the Ghost-Hunters who quickly confirm that neither the pond, nor the farmhouse itself have any ghosts – according to their Scare-o-Meter, the Phantom Finder 5000 that is. So it’s off to check the barn, but the seeming invasion by ‘terrifyingly gooey supernatural creatures’ doesn’t register on that PF5000 either. What can be going on?
But then, a clue leads to the chicken coop up on the hill and it’s a case of follow those goats and see what’s going on in that ‘incredibly creepy chicken coop’

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Once inside and down the stairs, those Ghost-Hunters are amazed at the sight before their eyes: an underground fear factory the likes of which they’ve never seen before.
But why are all those animals taking on ghostly or ghoulish appearance? Mother Hen starts to explain and all is about to be revealed in an amazing show-stopping finale …
I won’t reveal the rest of this brilliantly funny romp but suffice it to say that the moon has something to answer for and those Ghost-Hunters put a pretty clever training plan into action, which is highly effective …
most of the time.

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Definitely other winner from the stupendously clever Elys Dolan

For older readers:

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Emma Fischel
Nosy Crow
Flo, the modern young witch with a worldy-wise, rather eccentric Gran and a sceptical mum returns for a second Haggspitt extravaganza. Herein she has to take on the horrifying Haggfiend – head and arms of Hagg and body of Fiend with ‘evil in her cold cruel heart’; but is she real or merely a character from that book of Magical Myths.
As with the first story, there’s plenty of excitement and humour sizzling away between those gorgeous Chris Riddell covers. I can’t envisage many 8s to 10s not being caught up and swept along by this super, spellbinding story narrated by Flo herself.  I was!

Use your local bookshop     localbookshops_NameImage-2

For plenty of visual thrills visit the wonderful Children’s Books Illustration Autumn Exhibition at Waterstones, Piccadilly 23rd-29th October         C090B987-9FD4-47C9-A6E5-CEEE0DD83F4E[6]

Creativity Unleashed

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The Extraordinary Mr Qwerty
Karla Strambini
Walker Books
Norman Qwerty is a real ideas man; he just loves to invent things – amazing things, Heath Robinson style. But so extraordinary are his inventions that he keeps them under his hat (a large bowler) – quite literally – for fear that others will think him strange. Consequently Mr Qwerty feels completely alone, for what he fails to see is that other people also wear hats, all manner of them.

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There are cloches, boaters, top hats and fedoras all with hinged lids that can be unlocked and lifted to reveal such passions as butterflies, mathematics, exploration, tea even.
Eventually Mr Q’s ideas grow so huge they can be contained no longer. His piece de resistance is an enormous bird-like contrivance that spews forth appropriately egg-shaped ideas to all and sundry.

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In this way creativity begets creativity we assume, thus fostering a community of diverse thinkers and creators. And Mr Qwerty himself? He’s is no longer alone, unless he chooses to be.
Karla Strambini’s detailed illustrations are rendered largely in black and white, abundantly hatched and with just the occasional dash of colour – Mr Q’s brownish red tie being the most notable coloured item. From the title page, the whole thing is littered with visual symbolism

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leaving readers free to let their own imaginations run riot.
This unusual, fascinating book could well be used with children in both primary and secondary school; there is so much to look at, think about and discuss.

Imagination also runs riot in:

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Battle Bunny
Jon Scieszka, Mac Barnett and Matthew Myers
Walker Books
Either you will celebrate the creativity demonstrated herein or you’ll cringe in shock horror at the defacing, with black marker pen of the original saccharin sweet story.
(I have to admit when studying I have been guilty of writing my own comments all over textbooks, but I’ve never drawn in one). It’s something Matthew Myers does as he modifies the original pictures: He enhances, indeed completely revamps, the oil paintings with slightly smudgy black images of Alex’s anarchic making. It’s Alex too who renames the Birthday Bunny, Battle Bunny converting him from a cute character to a saw-wielding, helmeted and belted, eye-patch wearer bent on executing his ‘destructive Evil Plan’.

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(Little Rabbit Foo Foo you have a rival here.) He does have one more asset under his belt too – an extra fighting style bringing his number to 1104, one more than (Shaolin) Bear and (Ninja) Turtle his would-be eliminators.

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So is the world to be completely destroyed or can anybody stop Battle Bunny and his crazy plan? Thank goodness then for a boy who just happens to be called Alex and just happens to have a birthday too …
This hilarious book’s three co-creators/destructors are to be heartily congratulated: What a wonderful way to improve upon those cloying, sloppily written picture books out there – don’t try it with library or school books though. And, let’s hope that unlike our Birthday Bunny, readers will not be on the receiving end of a yucky offering inscribed on the flyleaf with such words as Happy Birthday Alexander. To my little birthday bunny on his special day. Love Gran Gran. After reading this, those who do will know just what action to take.
I’m off to get my hands on some of those terrible reading schemes to work on.

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Don’t forget February 14th ibgdposterlarge

Sam & Dave Dig a Hole

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Sam and Dave Dig a Hole
Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen
Walker Books
Sam and Dave, along with their dog ( watch that dog), are on a mission –a mission to find “something spectacular”. They start digging, just missing a largish gemstone,

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more digging… a larger one … oops missed that one too. They stop for a snack followed by a change of direction (the boys go their separate ways) …

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still nothing is found. Back to digging straight down again and even after the last of the chocolate milk and biscuits is gone they have discovered absolutely ZILCH. Moreover, the boys have dug themselves to exhaustion; time for a rest, a sleep in fact. Only the dog continues digging; he’s after a bone though. But then all of a sudden both boys and canine companion are cascading down, down …

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to a soft landing place.
That was pretty spectacular” comments an impassive Sam as they come to earth. Everything looks pretty much the same.

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Or does it? Look again – at the weathervane, the plant in the pot, the fruit on the tree, the cat’s collar … another dimension? A dream world? Maybe – that’s your decision though. And that’s the thing about this very clever book where every small detail counts … it’s all in the interpretation. That, and the unspoken interplay of text and earthy coloured illustrations. Then there is the overall design of the book with the, oh so careful, positioning of the words on every spread.
All in all, pretty spectacular I’d say.
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