Coming to England

Coming to England
Floella Benjamin and Diane Ewen
Macmillan Children’s Books

In a colourful autobiographical picture book story of her own life and that of her family, Floella Benjamin celebrates the Windrush Generation, many of whom have been so badly treated as a consequence of our government’s ‘hostile environment’ policy.

It’s a beautifully written and illustrated account of the move from her childhood home in Trinidad

to England, undertaken first by her Dardie and then a year later by her Marmie and two siblings; then finally Floella and her remaining two brothers.

This new version will surely open the eyes of young children to long voyages undertaken during the middle of the twentieth century, by many, many families from Caribbean Islands who came to England. Certainly it was a shock in so many ways, not least being the cold and greyness in stark contrast to the vibrancy and warmth of Trinidad.

It still hurts to read of the treatment she and her brothers and sisters initially received from other children when they started at school in London;

but the book ends on a happy upbeat note with Floella receiving recognition for all the incredible work she has done for children.

Apart from one or two scenes of England, Diane Ewen’s mixed media illustrations are aglow with rich colours that really make the images come to life on the page.

The way to overcome adversity is through courage and determination: Baroness Floella’s life is an inspiring example of this, and it’s fantastic to see a version of her life story for a younger audience than her earlier 2016 memoir.

All KS1 classrooms need this special book.

Turns Out I’m an Evil Alien Emperor / The Orphans of St Halibut’s

Turns Out I’m an Evil Alien Emperor
Lou Treleaven
Maverick Publishing

A month on from saving Earth from an alien invasion, things have got even weirder for Jasper and his sister Holly. He now knows that his true parents are slugs and that he too can turn into one  (especially at inconvenient times and often triggered by anger), as well as that he’s heir to a planet full of green slime.

Peculiar enough and more than enough to come to terms with surely, but not so. Despite reservations on the part of his foster parents (soon to be his adoptive ones), Mary in particular, Holly drags him off to her teen pop idol, Harry Handsome’s concert. Naturally Jasper has an ulterior motive for going however.

Thus begins another intergalactic adventure wherein seemingly HH is up to his old tricks helping Andromeda invade Earth and brainwashing the whole planet starting with the concert attendees. Why though; and what role is the Asbi supermarket chain in all this shenanigans?

Add to the mix, fluffy balls aptly named Fluffians, assorted aliens and robots, a spindly spider receptionist, an army of clones, plus coping with a surge of hormones and changes in Jasper’s body, as well as an upcoming adoption party; oh and regular things like attending school, and what readers have is an action- packed, slimy, fast moving story that will keep them turning the pages right through to the final Fluffy chirrup.

Can Jasper save the Earth again and can he do so in time to attend his adoption party? Pressure? Who says? After all’s said and done, ‘ It’s a wonderful world’  …

Another winner from Lou Treleaven, Jasper et al.

The Orphans of St Halibut’s
Sophie Wills
Macmillan Children’s Books

Readers who are fond of dark stories will love this grisly comedy of errors.

It stars eight year old Herc, his older sister Tig and their friend Stef, the only three orphans remaining at St Halibuts home for Waifs and Strays in the aptly named town Sad Sack. Also playing a significant role is Pamela, a goat.

Indeed, they’re now the only residents, due to an unfortunate freak library accident (for the matron who lost her life) and ‘Happy’ for the children,

After careful consideration, the children accept the utter importance of keeping their new-found freedom secret and thus some semblance of normality must be shown to the town’s inhabitants even though most rules are tossed aside with joyful abandon.

Into the midst of this jubilant happiness comes a letter duly delivered by postie Maisie. “DEATH is coming’ announces Tig, DEATH being The Department for Education, Assimilation, Training and Health coming to inspect the orphanage. The intention is to ensure the highest of standards are being adhered to; and should the residents not manage to deceive the inspector they’ll be sent to The Mending House of Sad Sack for troublesome children.

For sure the three have a pretty big task, but they’re both shrewd and clever. Is that sufficient to keep them living the good life?

Full of wonderfully funny, twisting, turning antics, mischief and mishaps, superb wordplays and delicious description, not forgetting the sprinkling of fantastic fiends, Sophie Wills’ comedic Victorian story world is one children will relish, (along with a game of football with a broccoli muffin) as will adult readers aloud.

A Poem for Every Autumn Day

A Poem for Every Autumn Day
ed. Allie Esiri
Macmillan Children’s Books

Allie Esiri has selected 61 autumnal poems for this terrific poetry collection to take readers through from 1st September to 30th November.

For this poetry-loving reviewer much of it was a trip down memory lane, some of which, including Christina Rossetti’s Who Has Seen the Wind?, William Blake’s The Tiger, Someone Came Knocking (Walter de la Mare) and Leigh Hunt’s Abou Ben Adhem took me right back to my primary school days when I learned them by heart.

I’m back in my secondary classroom with my English teacher reading us Edward Thomas’ Digging, Hardy’s Drummer Hodge, Betjeman’s Diary of a Church Mouse and Robert Frost’s The Runaway with that beautiful soft Welsh lilt to her voice.

Then I’m up on the stage in my final year at the same school performing those lines from Longfellow’s The Song of Hiawatha.

Some of my favourite poems are included: there’s Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116 ; and Robert Frost’s The Road Not Taken; I can think of no better way to start October than with that.

It’s great to discover new things too.
Surprisingly I’d not comes across John Agard’s terrific poem about bullying, The Hurt Boy and the Birds, beginning ‘The hurt boy talked to the birds / and fed them the crumbs of his heart’ , the final lines of which are, ‘But the hurt boy talked to the birds /and their feathers gave him welcome – // Their wings taught him new ways to become.’

Bang up to date is Michaela Morgan’s Malala: the opening verses  are: ‘A girl with a book. A girl with a book. / That’s what has scared them – / A girl with a book. // They get on to the bus. / They call out my name. They aim. And they fire. / A shot to the brain.’

I was greatly moved by all the war poems chosen for November, and by James Berry’s Benediction, also new to me, that goes like this:
‘Thanks to the ear / that someone may hear // Thanks for seeing / that someone may see // Thanks for feeling / that someone may feel // Thanks for touch / that someone may be touched // Thanks to flowering of white moon / and spreading shawl of black night / holding villages and cities together’

Reminding us of the way smell and taste can bring back long forgotten memories, Crab Apples (Imtiaz Dharker) is another exciting discovery for me: ‘My mother picked crab apples / off the Glasgow apple trees / and pounded them with chillies / to change / her homesickness / into green chutney.’

Much as I really don’t want the summer to end, this treat of a book will assuredly help me feel my way through the shortening daylight hours as I read A Poem for Every Autumn Day.

The Little War Cat

The Little War Cat
Hiba Noor Khan and Laura Chamberlain
Macmillan Children’s Books

This story was inspired by a real man ‘the cat man of Aleppo’, Mohammad Alaa Aljaleel, a truly kind individual who set up a sanctuary that became home to hundreds of cats in his home city after his family left for safety.

It became a place not only for the cats; adults young and not so young also came ‘to help and play, making it a place of love and hope for everyone’. So Hiba tells readers in a note at the end of her story, a story that begins with a little grey cat living a contented life in Aleppo. But that was before the war which brought with it terrible changes including those tramping big boots and a lack of food for the little cat .

As time passes, the scared creature kept to the shadows, his hunger inceasing.

Then one day she sees someone different – a gentle, soft spoken person – and she follows him until almost at the point of exhaustion, they reach somewhere safe and she hides herself away till the kind man sees her, feeds her and stays with her the entire night.

The following morning restored and sated, the grateful cat notices something and she knows just what to do … It’s time to pay forwards the kindness she’d been shown.

Hiba Noor Khan and Laura Chamberlain together show the transformational effect of kindness; something the author writes of in relation to the war in Syria, but it’s also something that many of us have discovered during the pandemic.

Attack of the Heebie Jeebies / A Case of the Jitters

Attack of the Heebie Jeebies
Tom Percival
Macmillan Children’s Books

Tom Percival is extremely empathetic and skilled when it comes to creating highly engaging picture books dealing with children’s emotions – think of Ravi’s Roar and Ruby’s Worry for instance.

Now comes the Dream Team series (this is the first) that aims to help slightly older readers explore childhood emotions.

Meet Erika Delgano who is far from happy. Her baby brother is getting away with everything, ruining her favourite toy, scribbling on her pictures and generally making an atrocious noise. Worse than that, her parents are too tired or even too busy to talk to her.
Angry to the point to exploding,

Erika stomps off up to bed; but, going to bed angry can result in bad dreams, an Angermare indeed. Uh-oh!

She finds herself in a very strange world with rainbow coloured trees, bouncy grass and waterfalls that flow in an upward direction. This world powered by dream crystal is the province of the Dreamteam whose role it is to protect children from Angermares and Anxietymares. However, weird creatures called Heebie Jeebies (fluffy beings with fangs) have invaded Erika’s dream and are consuming it.

They also steal a vital object – a powerful dream crystal – that could assist the girl in returning home safely, worries overcome, before the end of the dream cycle. The alternative is that she remains forever trapped in the Dreamscape.

With a host of weird characters in addition to the titular ones,

including a stoneman Wade and Madam Hettyforth, Tom has deftly, sensitively and with gentle humour, woven together a wonderful story with several threads, that explores angry feelings and their management.

With a purple colour theme, his fantastic illustrations are full of wonderful details and add to the impact of the book.

The development of emotional literacy in children is crucial if they are to grow up confident, happy, well-adjusted individuals. Tom deserves accolades for his contribution to that end in a way that encourages both self-reflection and conversation.

Whether or not there’s a new sibling at home, this is a corking book for home or school reading.

A Case of the Jitters
The second adventure begins with Erika contemplating a notice about the school talent show and desperately trying to think of a talent of her own to perform when suddenly she receives a communication via the magic crystal from Silas of the Dream Team. They have a rather tricky case and her help is required  with a girl named Chanda Anand.

Chanda is decidedly lacking in confidence, her dreams being haunted by a jittery dark shadow that refuses to go away, even in the daytime, such is its power.

Now it’s up to the Dream Team to help her regain control of both her dreams and her life. It certainly won’t be an easy task, but courageous Erika isn’t one to give up easily. Could it be that she does indeed have a special talent?

Another superb read (you have to work on your inner demons in order to deal with those outside of you) wherein friendship features strongly, anxiety is got to grips with and self-belief emerges. And, another set of terrific illustrations, this time with yellow, and some great new characters including a boxing kangaroo.

What next for Erika in Dreamteam story 3?

The Monsters of Rookhaven

The Monsters of Rookhaven
Pádraig Kenny, illustrated by Edward Bettison
Macmillan Children’s Books

Prepare to be intrigued, startled, uncomfortable, terrified and mesmerised as you follow orphan siblings Jem and Tom through a rip in the air and into the grounds of an other-worldly manor house, Rookhaven and almost into the mind, much of the time, of Jem herself.  She is welcomed by one of the residents, Mirabelle, and thus spends time with other members of The Family while her brother recovers from his sickness.

I’ve not come across the work of Pádraig Kenny before but he’s an enormously talented writer who, in this instance, has interwoven motifs from both contemporary and classic stories producing a book that, rather like the carnivorous flora standing sentry on the Path of Flowers therein,

grips the reader tightly; it feels as though it will become a neo classic.

There are monsters,

notably Piglet, a misunderstood character who plays a key part in the resolution of the story in a totally unexpected, but wonderful way; and then there’s Mr Pheeps who will certainly make you shudder at the way he manipulates others.

Equally as brilliant as the writing are Edward Bettison’s black and white woodcut style illustrations that show detail but never too much;

and his Flowers of Divine Lapsidy are truly horrifying.

Both timeless and a story of our times, this is a tale of division, empathy, high drama and healing that will make you think and keep on thinking long after you’ve closed the covers of the book.

Just One of Those Days

Just One of Those Days
Jill Murphy
Macmillan Children’s Books

Four decades on from their first picture book appearance in the now classic Peace at Last, the adorable Mr and Mrs Bear and Baby Bear return for a third story. It begins with a late awakening Mr and Mrs Bear leaping out of bed and preparing for work, leaving Baby Bear to his dinosaur dream.

Once awake though, the little one has to get ready for nursery, a particularly protracted process on this occasion and then it’s raining, all of which means that Baby arrives late at Nursery. It’s no surprise when he’s reluctant to go in but a story does the trick and off comes his coat.

Then there are problems over a dinosaur toy but Baby Bear isn’t the only member of his family whose day doesn’t go well.

Mrs Bear sits on her glasses; Mr Bear spills coffee all over some important papers – and that’s only the morning’s mishaps.

Afternoon nursery continues to be a trial

and by the end of the session it’s a very sleepy Baby Bear that greets his Mum before they walk home through the rain.

Back indoors, the two get themselves togged out in their PJs just in time for Mr Bear’s return. Not only is he carrying a large pizza box but he also has a carrier bag containing a special surprise for Baby Bear.

Then it’s time to share that delicious pizza and exchange a few comments about their respective days, which Mr Bear aptly sums up with the title line.

As wonderfully warm as ever, this is another tour de force for Jill Murphy; a celebration of a loving family and a story that parents, carers and little ones will immediately relate to.

A must have for family bookshelves and early years collections.

Hello Friend! / Bunny Braves the Day

Hello Friend!
Rebecca Cobb
Macmillan Children’s Books

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

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

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

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

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

Bunny Braves the Day
Suzanne Bloom
Boyds Mills Press

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

Big sister cajoles him with plenty of empathy and ideas,

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

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

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

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

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

New in Town

New in Town
Marta Altés
Macmillan Children’s Books

Despite its shaggy dog narrator, Marta Altés latest book is anything but a shaggy-dog story.

After a long and tiring journey, said narrator, in search of a new home, arrives at a large town.

After asking around and looking in lots of places, and in spite of all the wonderful sights, sounds and smells, he still hasn’t found anywhere that feels just right.

The people are a delight despite their rather different ways of doing things

but everyone seems just too busy, and nobody can understand, or perhaps even see the home seeker

untll the dog has a chance encounter with a little girl who is lost and wants to go home.

As they look for the child’s home together, the feelings of loneliness (the dog’s) and of being lost (the child’s) grow less

but then it’s time to say goodbye – or is it?

Warm and funny – the illustrations especially – this tale of kindness, friendship and accommodating differences needs to be read several times to appreciate all that’s going on in Marta’s splendid scenes of bustling city life.

The Teeny Weeny Genie

The Teeny Weeny Genie
Julia Donaldson and Anna Currey
Macmillan Children’s Books

There are faint echoes of the traditional Aladdin and The Fisherman and his Wife in this wonderfully funny tale of wishing that gets totally out of hand.

It all begins down on the farm when Old Macdonald decides to do a spot of cupboard cleaning. Having given his dusty old teapot a good wash, he’s rubbing it dry when out through the spout wafts the resident teeny weeny blue genie. The genie offers the farmer a wish.

It’s not too long before not only does Old Macdonald have that bright red tractor he so wanted, but a wife, a wardrobe, a cradle with a bawling baby,

a host of noisy animals; he’s called the fire-brigade to rescue a cat,

the crew have joined in with the wishing, and then there are superheroes whizzing every which way. The poor long-suffering genie can stand no more.

Powerless to make a wish for himself, he sneaks back into the farmhouse and back to his teapot home. So delighted is he at the sight of it that he gives the teapot a stroke, after which something wonderful and surprising happens …

Now should any of you lovely readers come upon a red teapot with white spots somewhere totally unlikely and feel the need to make a wish, then please be very careful what you wish for.

As always, Julia Donaldson’s zany story is a delight to read aloud, offering as it does, plenty of noisy joining-in opportunities for enthusiastic listeners who equally, will delight in Anna Currey’s watercolour scenes of the mounting mayhem that all began with a single wish and The Teeny Weeny Genie. Like the characters in the story, youngsters will certainly wish for more.

Adventures on Trains: Kidnap on the California Comet

Adventures on Trains: Kidnap on the California Comet
M.G. Leonard and Sam Sedgman, illustrated by Elise Pagnelli
Macmillan Children’s Books

In this sequel to The Highland Falcon Thief 12 year old Hal Beck is on another railway trip. Now he’s with his journalist Uncle Nat, embarking on a three day journey from Chicago to San Francisco.

Before they’ve even boarded the California Comet, Hal has his sketchbook out and has started recording what he sees. He’s also met up with Mason and his sister Hadley who tells him later on that she practises magic.

Shortly after, he meets Marianne, daughter of August Reza, the billionaire technology entrepreneur whose press conference Uncle Nat is to report on.

Hal encounters a host of other unusual characters, including Seymour Hart who always wants to stay close to his briefcase, and teenager Ryan whose speech is hampered by the dental braces he wears, but wants to communicate with Hal all the same.

As the train speeds on across the plains, Hal feels increasingly uneasy; something strange and possibly dangerous is going on.

Around 7.30pm, Hal sees a girl in a yellow dress being dragged into the boot of a waiting car that drives away into the night. Seemingly, Marianne has been kidnapped.

Can he possibly discover exactly what is going on? Perhaps, with the help of his new friends, Hadley and Mason.

Full of mystery and intrigue, this cracking story is full of interesting details and dropped hints.

It’s not only Hal (aka Sherlock da Vinci) who has an extremely deft hand when it comes to sketching: Elisa Paganelli’s smashing, sometimes finely detailed illustrations add considerably to the atmosphere of the twisting, turning adventure.

Lovers of trains and detective stories especially, will devour this; so too will anyone who loves a gripping yarn.

Arlo, the Lion Who Couldn’t Sleep

Arlo, the Lion Who Couldn’t Sleep
Catherine Rayner
Macmillan Children’s Books

Catherine Rayner has created an absolute stunner of a bedtime book in this story of Arlo the insomnia-suffering lion. He’s tried everything without success and now he’s feeling fed up and thoroughly exhausted.

But then he has an encounter with Owl

an expert at sleeping when it’s noisy and hot, and in her sing-song voice, she teaches Arlo how to wind down ready to fall fast asleep.

It works wonders and the lion feels rejuvenated after a long sleep. So much so that he bounds off to tell Owl, waking her up in so doing.

Arlo reciprocates with a sleep-inducing song for his feathered friend.

Both creatures are delighted. Their celebratory cheer in the evening however, doesn’t go unheard but perhaps the words ‘Have a good stretch from your nose to your toes. / Do a little wriggle, let your eyes gently close … As you fall into calmness, so comfy and deep / Your mind will rest and you’ll drift off to sleep’ sung as a duet will prove even more soporific where it’s needed.

Perfectly paced, the combination of a calming narrative with its in-built repetition of mindful meditative verses, and totally gorgeous, amazingly textured illustrations that take your breath away, this is sheer delight no matter how many times you read it.

I can think of no better book to share with little ones at bedtime; it’s brilliant through and through.

InvestiGators


InvestiGators

John Patrick Green
Macmillan Children’s Books

Here’s a zany graphic novel- the first of a series – that features alligator pals Mango and Brash and as the story opens they’ve just received an undercover assignment as agents for SUIT (Special Undercover Investigation Team).

World-famous Chef Mustachio has gone missing just as he’s about to reveal his latest culinary offering and Mango and Brash must go undercover at Batter Down bakery to discover what’s happened to him.

No problem then. Just a bit of diving down into toilets and moving through city sewers, an explosion at the Science Factory thanks to the delivery of a gigantic birthday cake from Batter Down,

disappearing ovens and a crocodile that has fallen into a vat of radioactive cracker dough and come back to life.

Green has conjured up a cast of assorted humans and reptiles, and weaves together a multitude of threads in his rapidly moving plot that’s full of groan-worthy jokes, puns and other word play.

Like this reviewer you might find your head spinning by the time you reach the end of this frenetic, fizzily funny  story. (It’s not though as we discover, the end of Mango and Brash, they are destined to return in at least two more mysteries.)

Green provides two final spreads showing how to draw the InvestiGators and a couple of others from the crazy cast.

I Can Roar Like A Dinosaur

I Can Roar Like a Dinosaur
Karl Newson and Ross Collins
Macmillan Children’s Books

What is it about a certain Mouse that causes him to keep on making ridiculous claims? Last time we met him he told his fellow animals that he was a tiger and now, so he’d have them all believe, he’s a fearsome ROARing dinosaur – well briefly …

Never mind; one can always turn to the trusty ‘How to Roar Like a Dinosaur’ guide book with its step-by-step instructions and why not give your pals a lesson too?

Now having watched Mouse in action, I know that he’s got absolutely no clue about how to be an effective teacher; hurling insults at the learners is not a good way to go.

Time to teach the teacher a lesson or two … Perhaps a spot of Mouse-baiting might be effective in unleashing the diminutive rodent’s ROAR.

Success of a kind – but chicken or no chicken, no creature in its right mind would try to teach its grandmother to suck eggs, so to speak …

I’m going to leave our Mouse friend rather precariously balanced upon the branch of a tree; safe in the knowledge that he’ll manage to use his imagination and extricate himself from what looks to be a rather perilous perch.

Yet again team Karl and Ross have created a pricelessly absurd ace of a book that’s full of funny foolishness, brilliantly portrayed pupils and cover to cover entertainment of the first order.

Conjuror Cow / Where’s William’s Washing?

Conjuror Cow
Julia Donaldson and Nick Sharratt
Macmillan Children’s Books
Although Julia Donaldson’s rhyming in this lift-the-flap- book is impeccable, Conjuror Cow’s magic skills are decidedly lacking as she makes several abortive attempts to produce a white rabbit from her top hat, a cake, a trap door in the floor and a snazzy table cloth,

before Nick Sharratt’s vastly amused mouse and pig onlookers give her the instructions that finally lead to a surprise revelation.

As you would expect Nick’s illustrations are alive with his trademark zany humour. Who can fail to fall for the charms not only of Conjuror Cow but also the team of bit part players?

Fantastic fun for toddlers and readers aloud too.

Where’s William’s Washing?
Kate Hindley
Simon & Schuster

What a delight to be back in Treacle Street on a breezy summery afternoon. William Tripehound is taking advantage of the breeze to dry his washing but all of a sudden, WHOOSH! The wind whisks the contents of William’s washing basket and the clothes he’s just pegged onto the line up and away.

The search is on aided and abetted by young listeners who will love to help lift the flaps and discover the whereabouts of William’s red striped apron, his checked trousers, his socks,

and his underpants.

Happily, thanks to audience assistance, by the end of the story William has all his washing back save one item, the new use for which is just too ideal to reclaim, and the pooch is more than happy to serve yummy pie and gravy teas as thank yous to all the Treacle Street helpers.

With her playful text and delectable, slightly retro, detailed illustrations the third visit to Kate Hindley’s Treacle Street is every bit as enjoyable as the previous ones.

The Singing Mermaid Make and Do Book / Jumbo Pad of My First Puzzles, Jumbo Pad of Brain Teasers, 501 Dinosaur Joke-Tivities

The Singing Mermaid Make and Do Book
Julia Donaldson and Lydia Monks
Macmillan Children’s Books

Here’s an activity book based on the popular The Singing Mermaid picture book from a few years back that’s especially apt for fans of the story and those who enjoy creating.

There are more than a dozen art/craft activities many of which are mermaid related such as the seaweed crown and tail patterns. For their simplicity I particularly like the ‘Mermaid Tail Footprints’ that can be turned into merpeople

and the sea creatures made from shells and pipe cleaners .
Having made the circus performers, those who want something more sophisticated, can go on to create a circus tent theatre and even put on a show.

Most projects have a lead-in quote from the story, and all have a list of items required, clear step-by-step instructions, some ‘tips, tricks and twists’ and funky illustrations by Lydia Monks. There are also 200+ stickers and some templates should youngsters feel the need to use them.

With school now over for the holidays, this book provides hours of crafty fun.

Jumbo Pad of My First Puzzles
Jumbo Pad of Brain Teasers
501 Dinosaur Joke-Tivities
Highlights for Children

Hours and hours of puzzling for youngsters can be found between the covers of these three.

My First Puzzles is aimed at under 6s and the Brain Teasers are for those age 6+, while both age groups will find plenty of things to enjoy in Dinosaur Joke-Tivities.

Younger puzzlers can hunt for hidden items in a variety of scenes, or search for things that are the same and different, or begin with a given letter sound to look for matching pairs, there are mazes, pictures to colour and to adorn with some of the 150 stickers provided, and a wealth of ‘silly things’ to find.

There are over 125 Brain Teasers some of which are of a mathematical nature. Others offer thematic words to unscramble, puzzles that require logical thinking to solve, words to find that rhyme with a given one, quizzes, riddles and much more. (all solutions provided).

With cartoons, tongue twisters, riddles and of course, jokes, there’s silliness galore in 501 Dinosaur Joke-Tivities as well as plenty to exercise the little grey cells of users. There’s even a story to finish. Here’s one of the jokes: ‘What dinosaur loved playing with blocks?’ – answer, Lego-saurus.

With long holidays now upon us, these offer indoor, screen-free fun aplenty.

Be Kind

Be Kind
Pat Zietlow Miller and Jen Hill
Macmillan Children’s Books

Now, more than ever, it’s vitally important for everyone to act with kindness and thoughtfulness to others, no matter who they are.

Here’s a thoughtful and thought-provoking look at what it means to be kind and how kindness can spread.

It begins when a little girl, Tanisha, spills juice all over her new dress one lunchtime to the amusement of most of those in the room. The narrator tries instead words of kindness …

Tanisha however runs off leaving her friend in thoughtful mode and as she paints she muses on the nature of kindness.

It could be many things shown through actions such as giving, helping or paying attention; or perhaps by thanking someone or merely using their name – all relatively easy to do.

Sometimes however it’s more difficult …

but small acts of kindness can have a ripple effect, growing worldwide even

and … “All the way back to Tanisha and me. So we can be kind. Again.”

Throughout the author leaves space for readers/listeners to reflect on the narrator’s words, which never once become preachy.

Jen Hill’s illustrations are enormously appealing capturing so well the feelings of Tanisha, the narrator, their classmates and the wider community.

This is most certainly a book to share and discuss both at home and in primary classrooms.

Moomintroll Sets Sail

Moomintroll Sets Sail
Alex Haridi, Cecilia Davidsson & Filippa Widlund
Macmillan Children’s Books

This adventure in the magical world of Moominvalley that so many of us loved to escape to as children, is an adaptation from the Tove Jansson classic by Alex Haridi and Celia Davidsson with illustrations by Filippa Widlund.

It all begins with Moominpappa leading Moomintroll, Little My and Sniff through the forest to reveal his latest enterprise, a sturdy boat he’s named Ocean Orchestra.

There’s a distinct snag though: the boat is on land and far too heavy to drag to the river. Instead the river must come to the boat. And so it does, courtesy of a creature called Edward the Booble. Then it’s all aboard (not the Booble) and away down the river and out to sea.

It’s not all plain sailing though for there’s a rescue (Hemulen’s aunt in a very bad mood – to start with but it improves after a night’s sleep),

a visitation from niblings, one of which gets left behind aboard the Ocean Orchestra; and as a second night falls, a huge storm blows up.

Can the Ocean Orchestra make it safely back to Moominvalley with all the Moomin family or might it be a case of lost in the storm?

As always this is full of the usual Moomin idealism, sensitivity, kindness and courage – sheer delight.

What the Ladybird Heard at the Seaside

What the Ladybird Heard at the Seaside
Julia Donaldson and Lydia Monks
Macmillan Children’s Books

When the ladybird takes a trip to the seaside, one July day, the sea lion roars, a seagull shrieks, a crab snaps, a shark gnashes and a whale’s tail splashes; but what the observant ladybird hears and sees are the dastardly duo Hefty Hugh and Lanky Len and they have a despicable plan.

They have designs on the mermaid’s beautiful fair hair, which they plan to cut off at midnight and fashion into a wig to sell to ‘a famous star’ and make a fortune in so doing. This isn’t to be a one off attack though, for once her hair has regrown, they’ll cut it again … and again … and again – ad infinitum.

The ladybird passes on the information she’s gleaned to the sea animals and they resolve to come to her aid.

They devise a clever ruse to foil the plan of the wicked two.

When they take the plunge at 12 o’clock could it be that Hugh and Len are about to attempt to chop off more than they can actually hack with their snip, snip, snipping scissors?

With the combination of Julia’s faultless rhyming narrative and Lydia’s sparkle-scattered scenes of the sea and its swimmers, this is another adventure of our silent Ladybird that’s sure to make a terrific SPLASH with both young listeners and adult readers aloud.

Welcome to Moomin Valley: The Handbook

Welcome to Moomin Valley: The Handbook
Macmillan Children’s Books

I’ve been an ardent Moomin fan since first reading Tove Jansson’s Finn Family Moomintroll and Comet in Moominland as a child of primary school age. So, I was thrilled to receive this handbook for review. Written by Amanda Li, it’s based on the animated TV series that sprung from the wonderful world of Moominvalley that Tove created. I was fascinated to learn from the introductory ‘How it All began’ that there’s even been a Moomins opera made.

Essentially though this colourful book is a guide to the world of the Moominvalley animation, the illustrations being based on Tove Jansson’s classic art.  First we meet the family (that includes special friends who when staying in the Moominhouse, become temporary family members), after which Moomintroll, Moominmamma and Moominpapa each have a page devoted to them describing their main characteristics and in the same section we’re provided with a brief Moomin history.

Next come the diverse group of the family’s visitors including the romantic Snorkmaiden who is besotted with Moomintroll.

The Moomin family residence is in the peaceful Moominvalley where they live in harmony with their environment. Due to their plethora of visitors they’ve had to extend their cylindrical home and it’s now the tallest building in the valley.

We read of their adventures, both at sea and on land, and

learn how they love to celebrate. We humans could do well to learn from them for they frequently ‘find meaning in the little things in life’. There’s magic too in the valley, especially at midsummer.

One chapter that immediately caught my attention was that called Rule Makers and Rule Breakers, the latter being of particular interest. There was of course Little My, rule breaker par excellence and a character after my own heart,

as is Snufkin, disliker of petty rules and regulations.

Further chapters are given over to ideas of the bright kind; kindness, the natural world of the valley and in Misunderstood Creatures we’re introduced to the likes of Groke and the hattifatteners. As anywhere there are seasonal changes in Moominvalley and these too are discussed. Then, beautifully rounding off the book, on the final 3 spreads, there’s ‘An A-Z of Moominvalley.

Tove Jansson died almost 20 years ago and since then there has been an enormous renewal of interest in her work. The Moomin books with their original artwork have been reissued as well as her fiction for adults. There have also been exhibitions and a biography in 2014 marking the centenary of her birth.

Moomins will never go out of favour so far as I’m concerned and I thoroughly enjoyed immersing myself in this book.

Egg

Egg
Sue Hendra and Paul Linnett
Macmillan Children’s Books

Team Hendra and Linnet (of Supertato fame) have created something delightfully different with their terrific tale of an upside down egg. And, they tell this tale with but a single 3-letter word and a sequence of delEGGtable illustrations.

Here’s what takes place. Into a group of pointy topped, bulging bottomed ‘normal’ eggs, comes our upside downer. The group members are at pains to point out how an egg ‘ought’ to look …

but undaunted, the newcomer proceeds to demonstrate its skills with some clever moves.

These seem to impress the others, so they decide to adorn it …

But this new look turns out to be merely temporary: our upside-downer has something else on its mind here and it looks like a lot of fun. Hopefully not of the shell-shattering sort, however.

Hang on though – might that mean that it’s fine to be an ‘invert’? Acceptance at last? Maybe; but that’s not quite the end of the story …

Accepting and celebrating difference are at the yolk of this Eggstraordinary book that will have you cracking up with laughter.

If you want an Easter offering that will last and last, way beyond the bank holiday, then Egg is the perfect treat. I’m certainly going to be giving a few.

The Grizzly Itch

The Grizzly Itch
Victoria Cassanell
Macmillan Children’s Books

What do you do if you wake from your winter slumbers with an itch? If you’re a bear of the grizzly kind then you’d most likely go in search of a tree for some scratching relief. That’s exactly what Victoria Cassanell’s Bear does in her debut picture book.
There’s a major snag though, in the form of a rather large queue at Bear’s favourite scratching tree.

Even worse, when it comes to his turn, this happens …

The beaver in question is apologetic and being a beaver, is also fond of trees and familiar with a good many in the vicinity. He takes Bear and together they hunt in the forest.

After seeing several that just don’t cut it as a suitable back scratcher, they come upon one beside the river that looks promising. Up Bear climbs, wobbles along a branch and …

Wet through, Bear despairs of ever finding a tree to do what he so badly desires. Beaver sitting beside him, is sympathetic and as it happens rather more …

By nightfall a firm friendship has been forged: I’ll say no more on the matter, other than this is a delight to read aloud and Victoria’s illustrations are smashing. Her portrayal of both the animal characters and their natural habitat, painted in ‘layered watercolour’ are captivating. I love the different view points especially that of Beaver and Bear looking upwards to the top of the tree Bear then climbs; and that back view of the two animals sitting side-by-side.

Funny, full of heart and a pleasure to read aloud, this story has vital messages about the relative importance of friends and ‘things’, and the surprising things that can happen if you offer help to others.

Board Book Treats

Dress Up!
Jane Foster
Templar Publishing

Little ones can make sure the characters in Jane Foster’s Dress Up! are suitably clad whatever the weather or what they want to do.

Bear needs to go out but there’s a downpour so a coat and wellies are required. Hamster is thinking of a stroll in the sunshine – a pair of sunglasses and a hat are a good idea for her.
Brrr! Cat is venturing into the snow: warm mittens and scarf are just the thing.

Frog on the other hand needs to be geared up with goggles and armbands for swim time.

It’s the end of the day when we meet Monkey. Once he’s got on his PJs and slippers, it’s time to say “toys away” and bid him ‘Goodnight’.

On each recto, opening a flap on Jane’s vibrantly portrayed animal, and a slider alongside, enables your little one to assist the animal with its snazzy outfit. A simple descriptive phrase followed by ‘Can you put on … ?’ set against a bright background poses the challenge.

Interactive fun, a predictable text and alluring art – what more can a toddler ask of a board book – oh yes, the chance to develop manipulative skills too.

I Forgot to Say I Love You
Miriam Moss and Anna Currey
Macmillan Children’s Books

This is a sweet story to read with the very young and it’s now available in a sturdy board book format.

It’s time Little Billy Bear was up, dressed and having his breakfast ready for nursery but he’s procrastinating on account of Rabbit his favourite soft toy. Mum though hasn’t time for his dawdles or she’ll be late for work.

Consequently she hurries him along

all the way to where Mrs Brown is waiting at the nursery door where she hands him over and dashes off.

Poor Billy is more than a little bit upset as Mum has left without saying that all important “I love you” to her son; moreover she still has Rabbit in her bag across her back.

Billy is convinced that Rabbit’s lost. Mrs Brown tries to placate the little bear who is now distraught, when suddenly in bursts Billy’s mum with Rabbit safe and sound and she’s ready to comfort him and tell her son she loves him. Then all is finally well.

Anna Currey beautifully captures both Billy’s changing feelings and the inherent warmth of Miriam Moss’s text with her scenes of the early morning rush that include details that make you want to slow down

and savour them rather than rush along with the characters.

They Did It First:50 Scientists, Artists and Mathematicians Who Changed the World

They Did It First: 50 Scientists, Artists and Mathematicians Who Changed the World
Julie Leung and Caitlin Kuhwald (edited by Alice Hart)
Macmillan Children’s Books

This book profiles 50 STEAM boundary-breaking trailblazers – pioneering artists, scientists and mathematicians – each of whom overcame enormous challenges to make incredible contributions in their own fields, and in one way or another, change the world for the better.

Some Julie Leung selected will already be familiar to readers – Ada Lovelace, Alan Turing,

Jane Goodall, Toni Morrison, Aretha Franklin, for example, but  that many others will probably not be.

It’s clear that the author has made an effort to feature men and women from around the world, as well as choosing from a variety of cultural and ethnic backgrounds. Thus she highlights Nikola Tesla, the first person to invent the AC motor (1887) Johanna Lucht the first deaf engineer to help manage a crewed NASA flight from mission control – “Never give up” she advises aspiring deaf engineers and scientists” with time and patience … “you will gain hearing allies.” along with the first Chinese woman – Tu Youyou – to be awarded a Nobel Prize (2015) in Physiology or Medicine.

New to me are Alexa Canady who faced an uphill struggle as a woman of colour, to become the first female African American neurosurgeon;

she specialised in paediatric care, saving numerous young lives.

I’d not heard either of Riz Ahmed, first EMMY Award winner for acting (2017) who is of Asian descent;

and other than her name I knew little about Zaha Hadid, the first woman to be awarded the Pritzker Architecture Prize (2004).

The subjects, arranged chronologically, mostly came to prominence in the 20th or 21st centuries, although Isaac Newton (1668) is there, as are two 18th century people Maria Gaetana Agnesi, an Italian mathematician, and German astronomer Caroline Herschel.

Like me, I suspect youngsters reading this fascinating and inspiring compilation, will be prompted (perhaps by their motivational quote) to do their own digging to discover more about some of these incredible people starting perhaps with some of those for who a vignette portrait with a sentence beneath and a brief paragraph on the next spread, are all we’re given. To that end there is a final list of books and other resources.

Also at the end of the book is a time line, as well as a note from the illustrator, Caitlin Kuhwald whose stylised portraits, painted digitally, are instantly eye-catching..

Role models for aspiring youngsters, all.

I Am NOT An Elephant

I Am NOT An Elephant
Karl Newson and Ross Collins
Macmillan Children’s Books

Hurrah! Team Karl/Ross have created a splendid sequel to their I am a Tiger with star of the show, Mouse, returning in all his naysaying glory, as he struggles against the odds to convince various beasties “I am NOT an elephant.” The odds being in turn, a lizard – who starts the concatenation of pachyderm positive ID-ing, followed by porcupine.

This sets our little rodent off doing some noisy acrobatics as evidence.

It’s of little use though, for up rocks a third creature going on about poor Mouse’s pong.

This leads him to make a shall we say, unwise claim, which almost ends in disaster; but our quick thinking Mouse tries another tack that includes some rather creative thinking,

culminating in a flying leap into unknown territory.

But hey! What’s this? If you’ve been observant from the outset, you’ll have noticed that Mouse reclining against a large subungulate foot nibbling a tasty fruit, and by now he’s rather anxious to finish dining so long as he’s not put off by any unexpected malodourous whiffs … after which it’s probably time to do away with his final claim and break into rhyme.

That way leaves the stage wide open for a third glorious episode of hilarity courtesy of Karl and Ross. They’ll be hard pressed to get Mouse to out-perform his show-stopping theatrics in this superb piece of silliness though.

Runaway Robot

Runaway Robot
Frank Cottrell-Boyce, illustrated by Steven Lenton
Macmillan Children’s Books

After being in a road accident, twelve year old Alfie has been fitted with a prosthetic hand – this makes him ‘a bit bionic’ he tells us. Along with the loss of his hand though, the boy has lost his confidence.

He explains how he bunks school( aka Limb Lab) – ‘swerving school’ he calls it, and instead of joining in the “New Life’ lessons he goes to hang out at the arrivals lounge of the airport.

On one such swerving occasion Alfie accidentally loses his state-of-the-art hand. At lost property, instead of his hand, the lad finds Eric, a six-foot tall, metal robot with a propensity for singing the national anthem. “I AM YOUR OBEDIENT SERVANT” Eric announces and “I CAN ANSWER ANY QUESTION” (except the ones he doesn’t know the answer to, that is.)

Eric too is missing a limb, one if his legs. Despite this, unlike the other robots Alfie decides Eric is anything but ‘a disappointing robot’. Indeed, he declares him ‘the most-not-disappointing robot you could ever meet’.

It’s no surprise then that the boy will do everything he can to keep the illegal Eric from being crushed at the R-U-Recycling scrapyard.

No easy task as despite his fine manners, Eric takes instructions literally, which inevitably gives rise to a fair few problems.

But with reports of a rogue robot at large terrifying the estate, should Alfie even be bent on saving Eric?

Alfie’s world might be full of things robotic (he does make some new human friends too) though in essence this story is about what being human really means.

With a plot that makes you both laugh and cry, that’s what makes Frank Cottrell-Boyce’s highly original book so satisfying. Add to that a sprinkling of Steven Lenton’s smashing illustrations and what you have is an unmissable treat.

 

Max & the Midknights

Max & The Midknights
Lincoln Peirce
Macmillan Children’s Books

Author/cartoonist Lincoln Peirce mixes comic strip and conventional prose to plunge readers back to the Middle Ages in this enormously engaging, madcap tale of young Max who longs to become a knight.

Max, (who acts as narrator), lives with Uncle Budrick, a totally inept troubadour in whose footsteps, as tradition dictates, the youngster is supposed to follow.

When ‘Sir Budrick’, as the side of his wagon announces, is taken captive by the evil throne usurper King Ghastly, Max and some other kids form The Midknights with the intention of storming the enormous castle where Budrick is imprisoned, rescuing him and restoring kindness to the kingdom.

First though they have to do battle with wicked sorceress, Fendra,

and ghastly, grimy, winged rats; oh and there’s a dragon too.

Then of course, there’s the thorny issue of gender – only boys can be knights – and the fact that your uncle can by accident, become a duck.

The dialogue between the young characters is entirely child appropriate and funny, and there’s plenty of word play and jokes as well, along with lashings of kindness and bravery.

Cleverly woven into the mix too are thought-provoking ideas relating to gender and being able to determine your own future no matter what. I absolutely love the King’s final declaration and the children’s confirmation that “Any child, boy or girl, may become a writer … or a magician … or a knight”.

Finally, a new chapter begins in Byjovian history and Max’s armour certainly shines bright.

Oh, Christmas Tree! / The Twelve Unicorns of Christmas / Oscar the Hungry Unicorn Eats Christmas

Oh, Christmas Tree!
Sue Hendra and Paul Linnet
Macmillan Children’s Books

There’s seasonal silliness in abundance in team Sue and Paul’s rhyming tale of a Christmas tree that doesn’t want to be. Said Tree is determined not to be dressed in baubles, tinsel and other festive fripperies so it decides to take a stand; or rather it decides to do anything but. Instead it’s dashing madly away from its decorative pursuers.

Now don’t get me wrong, it’s not Christmas the tree hates, rather it’s the idea of being instead of doing that’s really needling its branches.

“I truly love Christmas” asserts the tree and the idea of presents is appealing and that’s what gives Belle an idea. A new outfit might just suit the occasion especially if it equips the recipient to participate in winter sports. But perhaps there’s more to Belle’s clever gift than meets the eye …

The Twelve Unicorns of Christmas
Timothy Knapman and Ada Grey
Egmont

With the seemingly never waning enthusiasm a certain section of the population has with unicorns, I have a feeling there’s an inevitability about this book.

Narrated by a character who is pretty close to those I refer to, clad in her unicorn onesie a bright eyed miss starts the countdown informing readers that on the first day of Christmas she receives, courtesy of mum and dad, along with 1 sparkling tree, ‘a real-life unicorn’.

From then on, said unicorn is included in the festive giving both as giver and receiver of surprise presents. Unsurprisingly with a high-spirited unicorn on the scene there are a few mishaps as the days go by

and the creature begins to lose some if its sparkle. Come Christmas morning though a big surprise awaits him …

With her zesty illustrations that offer plenty of things to count, Ada Grey captures the inherent humour in Timothy’s telling ensuring a giggle at every page turn of this festive romp.

Oscar the Hungry Unicorn Eats Christmas
Lou Carter and Nikki Dyson
Orchard Books

It’s Christmas Eve and as usual Oscar the Unicorn is hungry, exceedingly so. He’s already started scoffing the stockings belonging to the royals, not to mention a large part of the Christmas tree and to Santa’s horror he’s had a go at the presents too. Then shock horror Santa discovers that the magic reindeer food has disappeared

and without food the creatures won’t be able to fly, which means Santa can’t complete his delivery round. I love Nikki’s exuberant scenes of Oscar’s chaos creating frolics and especially the sight of the far from happy reindeer on the final spread.

But we know where that food has gone; so perhaps little Princess Oola’s suggestion for a substitute sleigh puller might just save the special day.

Delightfully daft but Oscar’s fans will relish it for sure.

Christmas Comes to Moominvalley

Christmas Comes to Moominvalley
Alex Haridi, Cecilia Davidsson and Filippa Widlund
Macmillan Children’s Books

I’ve adored Tove Jansson’s Moomins since I was a child and it’s wonderful to be back in Moominvalley with an adaptation of Tove’s classic The Fir Tree story by contemporary Scandi. authors Alex Haridi and Cecilia Davidsson with illustrations by Filippa Widlund.

Without further ado let’s head over to Moominvalley where the Moomin family are all nestled in for their long winter sleep. Not so Hemulen though who crash lands unceremoniously into their attic and then proceeds to disturb the slumberers and tell them about Christmas, something they too should be getting ready for.

Now being as they’re normally asleep the Moomins know nothing about this Christmas business save that it sounds dreadful.
Once wide awake though, they climb out onto the roof from whence Hemulen came and from there they spy a friend who tells them they need a fir tree before night falls.

While the others are donning their warm attire and going off to obtain the tree, Moominmamma discovers a tiny little creature shivering beneath the veranda and she invites it in for a hot drink.

It’s with the help of this tiny being that they manage eventually to adorn their tree and rustle up some favourite foods. But just when they think everything is going well, Hemulen reappears with talk of presents so they too are organised, after which the Moomins sit back and wait for disaster to strike.

Meanwhile the little creature has assembled all its friends and relations – just in time for Moominmamma to make a special announcement that will bring all those woodies, toffles and creeps the most wonderful Christmas surprise ever.
And who cares if something other than a star is atop their Christmas tree – or is it?

Then with their fears and misunderstandings set aside, there’s only one thing for the Moomins to do: retire to bed once more and wait for spring.

Perfect wintry reading to snuggle down with – it’s gently humorous, reassuring and gives you a wonderfully warm feeling inside.

The Night Before Christmas in Wonderland / The Night Before Christmas

The Night Before Christmas in Wonderland
Carys Bexington and Kate Hindley
Macmillan Children’s Books

Demonstrating the true meaning of Christmas, this is a marvellous mix up of two classics– Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and Clement Clarke Moore’s A Visit from St. Nicholas.

It begins thus: ‘Twas the night before Christmas, a dark snowy night / When St Nick and his reindeer were just taking flight.’

Debut picture book author, Carys Bexington manages to sustain the jaunty rhyme unfalteringly throughout the tale. Therein she gives Santa aka St. Nick a turn to go adventuring down the rabbit hole when he responds to the plea of the Princess of Hearts who sends a letter begging for a Christmas present after her parents have said no.

Having made their way down the royal chimney St. Nick plus reindeer come upon a decidedly unseasonal scene and disturb the Queen of Hearts. She, we learn hates Christmas because as a little princess, her Dear Santa letter missed the last post on account of the White rabbit’s tardiness and so she was presentless.

As a consequence, presents, along with tinsel, mince pies and good cheer are all banned.

Now though, at long last, it’s time to deliver that gift to the erstwhile little princess.

Can St. Nick succeed in restoring the ‘Happy’ into Christmas? Perhaps, but only if her royal grumpiness, the Queen of Hearts responds positively to Rudolph’s assertion, that alluded to at the start of this review.

A full cast that includes the Cheshire Cat and the Mad Hatter, are depicted in Kate Hindley’s absolutely priceless scenes of seasonal mayhem and festive frolics, each of which is bursting with delicious details and Kate’s own brand of brilliance.

The Night Before Christmas
Clement C. Moore and Roger Duvoisin
Scallywag Press

If you are looking for a version of the classic Clement Clarke Moore seasonal poem this year then I’d wholeheartedly recommend this superbly designed one first published in 1954.

Its tall, slim shape and size is perfect chimney shaped design and here we follow Santa – portly and with an enormous beard – as he alights on the rooftop and slides down the chimney of the narrator’s residence (in how many homes would that be possible nowadays?).

Observant readers who are familiar with Duvoisin’s creation for Louise Fatio’s The Happy Lion will spot the striking resemblance of one of the soft toys left as a gift, to said lion.

Retro brilliance this!

The Cloud Horse Chronicles: Guardians of Magic

The Cloud Horse Chronicles: Guardians of Magic
Chris Riddell
Macmillan Children’s Books

I was thrilled to receive a copy of this, Chris Riddell’s first story in a new fantasy series.

The story is set in the kingdom of Thrynne, a place of ancient magic, the source of which is the Forever Tree hidden in the Great Wood.

‘For as long as anyone can remember, children of Thynne have looked at billowing clouds in the sky and wished on a cloud horse, always hoping … But no one has seen a cloud horse.’ That though is about to change …

We meet in turn three ordinary children each from a different town within the kingdom, into whose hands come three magical objects made with wood: to baker Zam Zephyr a runcible spoon;

to cellist Phoebe Limetree a talking cello;

to Bathsheba Greengrass a worpal sword with a carved wooden handle.

And thus it is that these unsuspecting children are destined to be the Guardians of Magic.

But anyone thought to wield the magic of Thrynne is in terrible danger especially from those who have their own reasons to keep that magic at bay: there’s chief rat King Tiberius-Tiberius who terrorises Sam’s home town Troutwine; the ruler of Phoebe’s home, Nightingale is a power-mad Clockmaker with an army of mechanical tin-men; while in Bathsheba’s tree-house town of Beam is Euphemia Goldencurls, a professional Princess who desires to keep alive the lucrative business of giant slaying.

Also cleverly woven into the story are fairy tale characters including a gingerbread man, the Pied Piper and the three bears.

The last section of the book brings together the three children who use their wits against the dastardly characters threatening the magical Forever Tree and the cloud horses that nestle in its branches.

If that’s not enough magic for you, there are also Chris’s awesome, instantly recognisable, detailed illustrations liberally scattered throughout the story, as well as a full colour fold-out guide to the giants of the Great Wood, aerial townscapes and cross-sections of buildings.

The result is an utterly compelling, enchanting and immersive book that you’ll find almost impossible to put down. I can’t wait for the next instalment.

Dracula Spectacular / Moldilocks and the Three Scares

Dracula Spectacular
Lucy Rowland and Ben Mantle
Macmillan Children’s Books

Lucy Rowland’s way with rhyme is superb and here she introduces readers to the Draculas, a family of vampires – father, mother and child who live in a dark dusty residence in the park.

Unlike his parents Dracula Boy loves bright clothes – no black outfits for him – and he really doesn’t want to go around scaring the townsfolk. Indeed some of the children allow him to try on their colourful gear and they become his friends; so much so that he offers to accompany scared-of-the-dark Rose, on a night-time exploration.

The two enjoy flying through the night sky, watching fireflies and gazing at the moon but must this wonderful adventure be for one night only?

Happily both his caring parents and his new friends want to see Dracula Boy happy, so perhaps there is a way to bring a touch of rainbow magic into his life.

Ben Mantle’s spirited scenes, by turns mock scary and vibrant, are a perfect match for the jaunty rhyming narrative.

A warm and sparkling alternative to the usual spooky Halloween stories, this one will work at any time.

Moldilocks and the Three Scares
Lynne Marie and David Rodriguez Lorenzo
Sterling

Let me introduce the Scares: there ‘s Papa Scare (bearing a striking resemblance to Frankenstein’s monster), Mama Scare (green skinned mummy/Bride of Frankenstein) and Baby Scare, a diminutive vampire.

As the story opens Papa is brewing up a large container of Alphabat Soup. “The recipe serves four. Just enough for one more,” he announces. Meanwhile Mama mixing potions in the lab, expresses a wish for an assistant and Baby is desirous of a playmate.

When Papa serves up the soup it’s too hot to eat straightaway, so he suggests a walk with their ghost dog Plasma.

Meanwhile, Moldilocks out sleepwalking is drawn to their residence by the smell of soup wafting in the air. In she goes and well, the rest is as you’d expect in this delicious fractured fairytale: Baby’s soup is gobbled up, his chair broken and his bed usurped.

Now here comes the twist: instead of being full on furious when they discover the intruder, the Scares, after Papa’s …

… eat without us”, welcome Moldilocks unreservedly.

Then in best spooky fairytale tradition the now enlarged family ‘lived hauntingly ever after.’

With plenty of puns to giggle over, an adoption/Halloween spin to the tale, and Lorenzo’s acrylic and colour pencil illustrations that are full of appropriately frightful details to ‘claw over’, this book is a fun read aloud for Halloween or as part of a classroom fairy tale theme.

Star / Beyond Platform 13

Star
Holly Webb, illustrated by Jo Anne Davies
Stripes

Here’s a wonderfully wintry tale about a little girl named Anna who finds a small carved wooden tiger figure at her grandmother’s house. She puts the carving under her pillow at bedtime and the following morning when she wakes up she is somewhere completely different, a snowy village in Russia.

What’s more there are reports of a tiger cub in the vicinity.

Then Anna/Annushka realises the reason she’s where she is – that cub needs to be kept safe. She’s even more sure when she comes face to face with the little tiger in the forest and Annushka is convinced it’s a female.

Something has to be done,but her father, who doesn’t know she’s actually seen the cub, thinks they shouldn’t get involved.
Even the idea of going out alone in the snow is enormously scary but she’s a determined, resourceful young miss and so when everyone else is fast asleep out she creeps.

This nail biting story is based on a real event, so says the author’s note at the end wherein she tells of a cub whose parents had been killed by poachers that was rescued, cared for in a rehabilitation centre and eventually released back into the wild at a nature reserve in Russia.

Beyond Platform 13
Sibéal Pounder, Eva Ibbotson, illustrated by Beatriz Castro
Macmillan Children’s Books

Eva Ibbotson’s original magical book The Secret of Platform Thirteen was published about 25 years ago and now Sibéal Pounder has penned a smashing sequel that is also both funny, and full of magic and madness.

It’s now nine years after the events of The Secret of Platform 13; the Island of Mist is besieged and Prince Ben and friend Odge Gribble (the hag) are hiding away. The protective mist surrounding the island is disappearing and in the hope of discovering the reason why, Odge decides to travel to Vienna (via the gump – a bump containing a hidden door to another world) to secure the services of a mistmaker. And so it is, in a case of mistaken identity (Odge’s speciality) young adventurous Lina Lasky who most certainly is no mistmaker, becomes involved in a quest to foil the plan of the power-mad harpies before the gump closes over.

Totally captivating and full of priceless comic moments and strange creatures,

A bagworm shot out and a bridge was created

this story absolutely whizzes along sweeping readers with it; and zany as it is, there lie within messages relating to kindness and finding a place in the world – whatever world.

With smashing black and white illustrations by Beatriz Castro, this is an unputdownable delight through and through.

Poems To Fall In Love with

Poems To Fall In Love With
chosen and illustrated by Chris Riddell
Macmillan Children’s Books

I’d already fallen in love with a good number of the poems Chris Riddell has included in this superb collection, but finding them here is still as much a joy as discovering the unfamiliar ones he’s chosen.

One of the latter in the first section Love and Friendship is Neil Gaiman’s Locks, inspired by the story of the Three Bears. It begins and ends, ‘We owe it to each other to tell stories.’ Powerful and very moving it was written by Gaiman for his then very young daughter.

Another new one to delight me was A.F.Harrold’s Postcards From The Hedgehog. The prickly writer is Simon and in his second card he writes this: ‘Dear Mum, / Lovely weather today. / I saw a really pretty girl. / Not sure how to approach her. / She makes me really shy / but just all warm inside. / I rolled up into a ball. / Wish you were here. / love Simon.‘

Two cards later we hear how Simon made his approach and what happened. It’s wonderfully droll and really made me laugh.

Another long time favourite of mine, Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116, is included in the section Let’s Stick Together; I think no collection of poems of love poetry is complete without this one that begins ‘Let me not to the marriage of true minds / Admit impediment. Love is not love / Which alters when it alteration finds, / Or bends with the remover to remove:’

This is followed by the less likely The Owl and the Pussy Cat that I’ve adored since my father first started reading to me from a collection of Lear’s nonsense verse even before I started school.

This is a wonderfully eclectic collection of old and new: you’ll find John Donne, Emily Bronte, Blake, Betjeman, Grace Nichols, Roger McGough, Carol Ann Duffy, Sylvia Plath, Derek Walcott, even the compiler himself .

Jan Dean’s Tomorrow when you will not wake left me with a huge lump in my throat; Christina Rossetti’s Remember, also in the final section, always has the same effect.

I could continue talking of the delights herein but instead will conclude by mentioning another of my all time favourites, E.E. Cummings’ i carry your heart with me that’s part of Valentine

(Wendy Cope’s poem of that name opens this section).

There’s passion, joy and heartbreak: you’ll shed tears of joy and tears of sadness and you cannot but be wowed by Riddell’s awesome black and white illustrations that make you see anew every single poem, however familiar.

Offering something for all moods, it’s a treasure of a book: I’ve certainly fallen for it.

Once Upon a Wild Wood

Once Upon a Wild Wood
Chris Riddell
Macmillan Children’s Books

Former Children’s Laureate, Chris Riddell has woven a wonderful fairy tale extravaganza if ever there was one.

Its main protagonist is Little Green Rain Cape whom we meet as she sets off through the woods heading for Tall Tower wherein Rapunzel is throwing a birthday party.

En route, Green meets and rejects the assistance of several well known fairytale characters including a wolf, a ‘kindly’ old lady, a ‘friendly’ troll, the Beast sans Beauty who has gone missing; a talking harp whose aid she comes to and in so doing happens upon the Three Bears.

All this walking however is hard on the feet so it’s fortunate that another encounter is with Thumbelina who gives her some ointment to salve their soreness; and eventually along with a host of others including a prince,

pigs and dwarves, she reaches the venue where they all gain admittance.

A great night is had by everyone

particularly Beauty and the Beast who are reunited at last; and the following morning Green continues on her way through the Wild Wood.

Most assuredly this is a book for everyone, although with his dramatic irony and witty lines – ‘ ”Princesses!” he exclaimed. “Did someone say princesses? Exhausting! Either falling asleep for a hundred years, losing their shoes or going out every night dancing. …” ‘, – Riddell does assume some prior knowledge on the readers part. Perhaps it’s a case of the more you know the more you’ll get from it.

Harry in a Hurry

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

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

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

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

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

As he does so, something strange starts to happen.

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

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

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

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

I Am A Tiger / The Happy Lion

I Am A Tiger
Karl Newson and Ross Collins
Macmillan Children’s Books

Ignorance? Bravado? Or playfulness? What is driving Karl’s Mouse protagonist to insist that he’s a tiger. Fox, racoon, snake and parrot in turn, challenge the small creature to prove himself but his lack of size, stripes and tree climbing skills do nothing to convince the others of his claim and that growl is – let’s say somewhat feeble.

Suddenly along comes another animal proclaiming …

The ‘not-tiger’ then goes on to try and persuade the stripy character that HE is in fact a mouse with some deft moves.

These he follows with some further ridiculousness

before departing in search of lunch.

This sees our little grey friend heading towards a watery place wherein he spies his reflection and there he learns the error of his claims …

With it’s wonderful surprise finale, this is a grrralectable piece of comic theatre picture book style delivered through Karl’s droll mouse narrative and Ross Collins’ brilliantly expressive scenes.

Hilarious, and I look forward to the next of the promised Karl/Ross creations; they’ve certainly set the bar pretty high with this one. Young listeners will absolutely love it and it’s a gift for those who enjoy throwing themselves into story sharing.

The Happy Lion
Louise Fatio and Roger Duvoisin
Scallywag Press

This is a new edition of a classic story originally published in the 1950s and is set in a French town.

In that town is a zoo, the home of the Happy Lion. He leads a contented life there with daily visits from friends young and not so young, as well as being entertained by the town’s band on Sundays during the summer.

One day, the keeper forgets to close the door and the lion decides to go out and visit all those kind people who were his regular visitors.

Their reactions however are not at all what the Happy Lion expects; he’s barely acknowledged by the animals and the humans are terrified.

Bemused he stops, meditates, concludes, “this must be the way people behave when they are not in the zoo” and continues on his way hoping to find a friend.

He does so, after some drama involving a fire engine, firefighters and their very long hose; and all ends happily with the Happy Lion and his young friend walking back to the zoo together …

With alternate black and white, and three-colour, textured spreads, Duvoisin’s illustrations – wonderful, sketchy, smudgy scenes – still hold their magical charm – for this reviewer certainly – providing the perfect complement to Fatio’s tale.

Field Trip to the Moon

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

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

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

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

sheets of paper and the moonscape with colourful designs.

 

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

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

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

The Darkest Dark
Chris Hadfield and The Fan Brothers

Counting On Katherine

Counting on Katherine
Helaine Becker and Dow Phumiruk
Macmillan Children’s Books

There is so much to like about this splendid picture-book biography of Katherine Johnson, a NASA mathematician.

We first meet the young Katherine as a lover of numbers and everything to do with counting, and an insatiable curiosity– about the universe in particular.

An excellent student, she jumped three school years but her US hometown high school was racially segregated and barred Katherine from attending. As a consequence, her family moved to a town that had a black high school and there the girl flourished, excelling at all subjects although still liking maths the best.

Despite there being no jobs for women research mathematicians at the time, Katherine was tenacious, holding fast to her dream while becoming a primary school teacher.

In the 1950s she finally secured a post with NACA, which was later subsumed into NASA although the job she and other women did was one the men deemed unimportant. Undaunted, Katherine knew that her role was crucial: she was able to determine the trajectory of a spaceship.

Eventually her skills in mathematical accuracy, leadership as well as her creativity and intellectual curiosity led to a promotion to Project Mercury a programme designed to send the first US astronauts into space. She won the trust of the project’s lead astronaut and promised him, “You can count on me,”.

Again it was “You can count on me” when she calculated the flight path for Apollo 11, Apollo 12 and when she ensured the safe return of Apollo 13.

Having overcome much in the way of racism and sexism, on the way, Katherine had earned her place among the stars.
Helaine Becker’s direct telling is highly readable and she makes clever use of the word ‘count’ along the way; while Dow Phumirik’s excellent uncluttered illustrations, some with background computations subtly underline Katherine’s passion for things numerical.

What a splendid partnership this is; and the resulting book will surely inspire and empower youngsters, especially girls to pursue what they love.

Primary Fiction Shelf

The Umbrella Mouse
Anna Fargher, illustrated by Sam Usher
Macmillan Children’s Books

Here’s a war story that’s altogether different. It’s set in London in 1944 and begins in Bloomsbury’s James Smith & Sons Umbrella Shop wherein we meet Pip Hanway and her family of umbrella mice.

When disaster strikes in the form of a bomb on the building, killing her parents, Pip is forced to begin a hazardous hunt for a new home, a home in the Italian hills where her family had its origins.

She is fortunate to meet rescue dog, Dickin, and thus begins a highly unusual tale that draws on true stories of animals caught in the WW2 conflict, a story of resistance, of courage, determination, treachery, sacrifice and bravery.

Anna Fargher’s debut is a powerful, compelling telling that will have readers and listeners charged with emotion as they root for these animals fighting the evil Nazi regime; and with occasional illustrations by Sam Usher of Rain, Sun, Snow and Storm fame to add to the pleasures, the book is strongly recommended for individuals and will also make a great KS2 class read aloud, particularly for those studying WW2.

Turns Out I’m an Alien
Lou Treleaven
Maverick Arts Publishing

The narrator of this zany tale is eleven-year-old Jasper who stands 4ft 6in tall and has green hair and eyes. A highly imaginative child so his teacher tells him, Jason lives with his extremely nice foster parents Mary and Bill Clarkson.
One day in order to bring in some extra cash. Mary and Bill decide to rent out one of the now unused bedrooms.

Before their guest has even arrived, Jasper is beginning to doubt whether his foster parents really are as predictably normal as he’d heretofore thought, especially when he notices Mary cooking what appears to be a kind of glowing green rock and Bill constantly checking the night sky through his binoculars.

Then out of the dark descends a weirdly spherical being with an orange skin uttering greetings from planet Snood and introducing himself as Flarp Moonchaser, “Slayer of the Multi-Headed Muck Monster of Murg” as he stretches forth his hand for Jasper to shake. Moreover, the thing has a strange bag stuffed full of weird and wonderful objects.

I’ll say no more other than that Jasper discovers his alien origins, the children are cascaded into a madcap space adventure to save a planet from the terrible Emperor Iko Iko Iko; there are secret agents, secret, secret agents and things get pretty Gloopy.

Entirely crazy, but readers will be swept along by the unfolding drama, which perhaps doesn’t actually end at The End.

Dennis in Jurassic Bark
Nigel Auchterlounie
Studio Press

Fans of the traditional Beano comic will certainly recognise the characters Minnie the Minx and Walter although this book is a novel, not a comic, albeit with a fair sprinkling of black and white illustrations.

It’s another madcap adventure for Dennis who is plunged back in time 65 million years. First though we find the boy visiting his gran watching a TV news reporter talking about ‘what seems to be a huge mutant, ice-cream stealing seagull’ that Dennis immediately identifies as a Pterodactyl. Dennis however isn’t the only child watching the news item; so too, among others, are his worst enemy Walter and Minnie the Minx.

Before you can say Pterodactyl Dennis finds himself on Duck Island determined to save Beanotown from dinosaur disaster.

There’s no need to be a Dennis fan to be entertained by this madcap romp with its interactive puzzles to enjoy along the way.

Early Years Round-Up

Father’s Day
Shirley Hughes
Walker Books

A gorgeously warm celebration of moments shared with a beloved dad are woven together to make a super little book for dads and their very little ones to share around Father’s Day, or on any other day. There’s a lively early morning awakening and musical rendition at breakfast time and a walk to playgroup. The highlight though is a day spent at the beach, playing, snoozing, sandcastle building and picnicking. Then it’s back home for bathtime, a spot of first aid,

a goodnight story and some moon spotting.

Bliss! And who better to show all that than the wonderful Shirley Hughes.

Maisy Goes to a Show
Lucy Cousins
Walker Books

Maisy and friends are off to the theatre to see a performance of Funny Feathers, starring Flora Fantastica. Maisy finds it hard to contain her excitement as they queue, browse a programme and eventually take their front-row seats just as the music starts and the curtain lifts for the drama to begin.

During the interval, there’s time for a loo visit and snacks before the bell rings for curtain up again and the cast, led by Flora, sing in the big city of their desires before heading back to their jungle home, and a curtain call farewell.

Maisy fans will love it, and she’ll likely win some new followers with this latest “First Experiences’ story.
More new experiences come in:

The Scooter
Judy Brown
Otter-Barry Books

Twin rabbits Bruno and Bella and back in a second story. Bruno is thrilled to bits with his brand new scooter, practising eagerly using alternate legs and travelling at different speeds in different places. The only trouble is he forgets to perfect one crucial aspect of the entire process: how to use the brake. This precipitates some high drama as he whizzes downhill, through fields, a garden, the market and the park before Bella finally catches up with him – almost.

Anyone for a repeat performance?: Bruno certainly and I’m pretty sure very little humans will demand a re-run too; it’s smashing fun and who can resist Bruno’s enthusiasm?
And for slightly older listeners:

Sandy Sand Sandwiches!
Philip Ardagh and Elissa Elwick
Walker Books

Philip Ardagh and Elissa Elwick’s ‘sticky stickers’ awarders, The Little Adventurers return with their zest for life and bonhomie. It’s a very hot day as they assemble in their HQ shed, collect the necessary items and await one of their number, Finnegan who eventually turns up already sporting his snazzy trunks.

Off they go to the beach in his daddy’s car, arriving full of enthusiasm but with a modicum of good sense as they share the safety rules before heading onto the sand for some sculpting.

Masterpieces complete, it’s time to stand back and admire each one in turn.

Then after ice-cream treats it’s off for some paired rock-pooling,

followed by shell collecting and an unplanned treasure hunt. Then it’s time for a quick dip before they all head home with a few grains of sand to remind them of their day and back at HQ, a final sticker awarding, including one to Snub for his very helpful ‘mouse-sitting’.

Brimming over with silliness, friendship, sandy treats and other adorable delights (including the occasional fact), this is a treat for littles around the age of the characters herein.

Finally, if you missed the original, there’s now a board book version of:

Princess Mirror-Belle and the Dragon Pox
Julia Donaldson and Lydia Monks
Macmillan Children’s Books

Now a tiny version of a favourite spotty tale for very littles.
Ellen has chicken pox; she’s covered from head to toe in horribly itchy spots; and what does she want to do to those spots? Scratch them, especially the one right on the tip of her nose. As she gazes in the bathroom mirror, about to do the deed, she hears a voice – no, not mum’s but Princess Mirror-Belle’s.

Thus begins a funny story, delivered for a change in prose rather than Donaldson’s more usual rhyme. Lydia Monks’ sparkle-spangled, collage constructed illustrations offer readers an abundance of opportunities for visual and tactile exploration.

 

Springtime Picture Book Delights

This is a catch-up of some Macmillan titles:

The Nature Girls
Aki (DelphineMach)
Macmillan Children’s Books

Sixteen inquisitive girls – I love the fact they’re introduced by name on the title page – don identical yellow safari suits and sally forth to explore nature, in particular different biomes.
Bags on backs, having observed some rabbits in their garden, they head for the beach and clad in sub aqua gear, dive down

and swim with dolphins.

Then it’s back on with the safari suits and off they go walking through rainforest, across a desert,

then aboard a safari bus travelling through grasslands; on a plane tundra bound where they board a dog sledge

and finally, they sail off destination a forest alive with sounds of its wildlife.

Observant listeners and readers will notice the less obvious as well as obvious animals and other detail in Aki’s playfully adorable scenes, as her rhyming text bounces along as enthusiastically as the intrepid travellers. I absolutely love the sense of mischief occasionally shown by some of the young female friends in this joyous adventure and the final scene hinting of further wonder-filled adventures in the offing. Hooray for girl power!

A fun introduction to the scientific notion of biomes – the final spread about these may well set the inquisitive off researching the topic further.

Little Bear’s Spring
Elli Woollard & Briony May Smith
Macmillan Children’s Books

As any walk in town or rural parts will show, spring has well and truly sprung now and what better way to celebrate its joys (apart from a walk) than with terrific twosome Elli and Briony’s gorgeous book collaboration that celebrates not only the coming of my favourite time of year, but also, friendship.

When a little bear awakes one morning all he sees is a vast, seemingly empty snowy landscape.
Without a playmate, Little Bear spies a small smooth stone that feels like a promise.

Tucking it into his fur, he heads off down the track in search of friends.

Too busy for friendship, the birds are nest building and bear’s efforts to do likewise fail so off he goes again.

He finds however that the hares and wolves are also busy with spring preparations and his attempts to emulate them are, in the first instance merely a flop and in the second, pretty scary. This brief scariness however, precipitates the perfect finale of the story …

for when Little Bear awakes next morning a whole new world with an exciting surprise awaits …

Delivered in faultless lyrical rhyme Elli’s terrific tale with its wonderful evocations of spring, and Briony’s stupendous scenes of the natural world and the changes therein, (her use of ‘night and light and the half light’) with the terrific portrayal of the zestiness of life in springtime make this book’s a true treasure no matter what time of year you share it.

What Clara Saw
Jessica Meserve
Macmillan Children’s Books

Clara’s enthusiasm for the school trip to a wildlife park could so easily have been thwarted by the egotistic, know-all, humans are vastly superior to other animals, attitude of teacher, Mr Biggity, as he walks around intent on proving the veracity of his fake-scientific assertions to the children in his class at every opportunity, talking down the animals’ awesome characteristics.

Clara in contrast walks around with an open mind and eyes, wondering and observing what the residents of the animal park are doing. “Do animals feel sad?” she asks … ‘no, no and NO, … their brains are far too small for feelings” comes his retort.

And of course they can’t possibly communicate, use tools to get what they need and absolutely ‘don’t care about the world around them’ …

As Mr B. rabbits on, the animals are engaged in using their aptitudes, knowledge, skills and natural instincts to outwit the park keeper and come to the aid of a giant tortoise, about to be transported away from her fellow animals.

So much is shown rather than told. Jessica’s exquisitely observed watercolour and pen illustrations say far more than her words: Clara’s fascination and joy as she watches the animals is evident from the outset as is Mr Biggity’s condescending attitude both to his charges and the animals. Note the position of his right hand as they enter the park, his meticulously tied laces, his upturned foot as he strides forth and in contrast, the expressions of the children, as they look in wonder at what they see.

This humorous, cleverly constructed story brilliantly demonstrates how best to learn; how not to be gulled by false information (HMMM!) and there’s not a tiny weeny touch of the dogmatic preachiness that is Mr B. anywhere in sight.

The Go-Away Bird

The Go-Away Bird
Julia Donaldson and Catherine Rayner
Macmillan Children’s Books

The Go-Away-bird is a real African species (so named after its call that sounds as though it’s warning others when it sees danger).

Julia Donaldson makes her bird a loner that drives away potential friends, although apparently go-away birds can sometimes be found in groups of as many as thirty. So let’s meet the story one right away.

‘The Go-Away bird sat up in her nest, / With her fine grey wings and her fine grey crest.’

Thus begins this story wherein one after another the Chit-Chat bird, the Peck- Peck bird, the Flip-Flap bird approach her tree wanting to talk, share a meal or fly with her and each is insulted and given the same “Go away! Go away! Go away!” rejection.

Then along comes the very large and dangerous Get-You bird with just one thing in mind – a tasty meal. Oh no!

Luckily for the Go-away bird along comes a Come-back bird willing to stick his beak out and summon his friends.

Now it looks as though it’s time for the naysayer to understand the need for, and appreciate, friendship after all.

This is a stellar author/artist partnership. Julia’s witty, bouncy rhyming text is pure pleasure to read aloud and highly join-in-able; and Catherine’s art is simply awesome – richly coloured and textured, superbly expressive: every spread is a joy to linger over – after you’ve read the story aloud once first.

A golden tale about the importance of friendship, co-operation and teamwork that is just perfect for sharing and discussing.

Terry and the Brilliant Book

Terry and the Brilliant Book
Nicola Kent
Macmillan Children’s Books

Meet best friends Sue and Terry. They absolutely love balls; balls to bat, bounce, bash and run and jump after.

Into their ball-filled life one day comes a book. It’s Sue’s surprising birthday present to Terry.

Initially neither knows what to do with it so Sue goes off to get yet another ball for Terry. When she returns however, Terry is lost in his book and just can’t put it down. (I know that feeling!)

The friendship is tested when things go wrong – first a cinema visit and then dinner.

That night Terry finishes his wonderful book and next morning the two resume their ball playing until …

Now it seems, Sue too has discovered the joys of reading

and it’s Terry’s turn to feel left out.

Can they get around this challenge to their friendship? Perhaps a visit into town might help …

This enchanting story about the delights of reading demonstrates that perhaps it’s not wise to become totally obsessed with one activity, especially when it damages something as important as friendship.

The splendid endpapers, indeed the entire book reminds me of a relation, his family and book-filled, ball-filled home. Herein the 3 year old boy is ball mad but now also loves books; and the 6 year old girl always seems to have her head in a book but finds time for lots of physical activities too.

A smashing book to open up discussion, at home or in school, about the story’s themes, which are highlighted in Nicola’s beautifully detailed illustrations; love her cheery colour palette too.

The Girl, The Bear and The Magic Shoes

The Girl, The Bear and The Magic Shoes
Julia Donaldson and Lydia Monks
Macmillan Children’s Books

Perhaps like me you have a particular penchant for shoes, especially trainers (and boots).
How would it be then to purchase a brand new sparkly pair of red ones like the little girl in Julia Donaldson’s super new story. Not only that, but to discover that they are magic and have the power to morph into every possible kind of footwear you need at exactly the right moment, as you attempt to flee ‘Click-click!’ from a backpack-wearing polar bear, ‘Pit-a-pat’.

The first transformation comes at the bottom of an imposing-looking, seemingly unclimbable mountain. Perfect for ‘Crunch, crunch’-ing upwards, albeit pursued still by that bear.

Once at the summit, descent is necessary, so another change produces ‘Whee’, whizzy skis,

then squelch-withstanding yellow wellies,

followed by super splishy,splashy flippers.
All the while though, that bear is hot on the trail; but why would a polar bear be pursuing the child so eagerly? That would be telling – certainly he has no egregious intent.
To find out, hot foot it down to your nearest bookshop (no not shoe shop), bag a copy and discover for yourself.
Oh! I forgot to mention, there’s one final transformation before the shoes reassume their initial jazzy red trainers incarnation.

Lydia Monks’ wonderfully expressive, alluringly bright, funny illustrations sparkle as much as Donaldson’s text. The latter is sprinkled liberally with delicious-sounding onomatopoeia (perfect for helping to develop sound/symbol associations) and irresistibly join-in-able.

To add to the delights, those cracking, textured scenes provide a super tactile experience for young hands to explore. Look out too for the visiting ladybird that keeps popping into and out of view.

A sure fire winner!

The Cook and the King

The Cook and the King
Julia Donaldson and David Roberts
Macmillan Children’s Books

In this tale the king, being of a hungry disposition is desperately seeking not a handsome rich prince to wed his daughter but, a cook.

Having eliminated almost all of those who apply – supposedly the finest in the land, but serving up runny eggs, tough meat and worse, he’s left with just one pretty desperate looking fellow going by the name of Wobbly Bob. Yes, he’s dressed in cook’s gear but his name is far from promising and he’s a self-confessed wimp. Masterchef material he most definitely is not. But could he be?

The guy lacks the courage to tackle any of the tasks needed to ensure his highness gets his favourite fish and chips meal.

No prizes for guessing who does more than the lion’s share of the work.

Finally though, the two sit down to dine together, but does the meal pass muster, or must the king keep on looking for a cook?

Splendidly funny: Julia Donaldson serves up yet another winner. With its inbuilt 3Rs – rhythm, rhyme and repetition, this is a splendid read aloud, join-in story.

There’s plenty of food for thought: why are those courtiers pinning up the ‘Wanted Royal Cook’ poster? And what has happened to make the king resort to unappetising pizza deliveries? Both of these questions spring to mind in the first few pages, both scenarios being shown in David Roberts’ fine equally winning, hilarious illustrations of same.

(The story is, so we discover on the credits page, based on one the author’s son made up for his daughter– the story telling prowess is seemingly, in the genes.)

“You’re Called What?!”

“You’re Called What?!”
Kes Gray and Nikki Dyson
Macmillan Children’s Books

Spluttersome delight is guaranteed in the latest of Kes Gray’s comic outpourings.

He takes us to the Ministry of Silly Names where there’s a queue of weird and wonderful creatures all intent on changing their monikers.

As each one reaches the counter and reveals what it’s called: Cockapoo, Monkeyface Pricklebat, Pink Fairy Armadillo, Blue-Footed Booby,(thanks to Jonny Lambert I’d heard of that one) Ice Cream Cone Worm,

Shovelnose Guitarfish, Blobfish

and yes, Bone-Eating Snot Flower Worm … the hoots of laughter from those behind get ever louder (and longer), in tandem, if my experience is anything to go by, with those of listeners.

Nikki Dyson’s hilarious portrayal of each animal with its peeved, or perhaps acquiescent countenance, is rib-ticklingly funny; but perhaps the best bit of all – no make that the second best bit – is the discovery that each and every one of these animals actually exists.

The funniest bit, at least for me, is when the final creature, the Aha Ha Wasp announces what its new name is to be.

Revealing this would most definitely spoil the fun so you’ll just have to lay your paws, feelers, fins or other appropriate appendages on a copy of the book pronto.

With its impeccable comic timing, this one’s beyond priceless, probably as much so as the author’s Oi Frog! and if your audience’s love of language isn’t boosted 100% after hearing the story, then I’m off to stick my head under the frill of that Tasselled Wobbegong.

I might have to do that anyway: one read aloud, with all those ‘HA HA’s, has left me utterly exhausted.

Dinosaurs Don’t Draw / Tyrannosaurus Wrecks!

Dinosaurs Don’t Draw
Elli Woodward and Steven Lenton
Macmillan Children’s Books

‘Of course they don’t’, children will be thinking in response to hearing the title of this book, but they’re in for a surprise thanks to Picassaur and his strange find. Said find is a white object and it’s not long before the young dinosaur has transformed his surroundings.

His mother is less than impressed: “We’re fighters and biters, as fierce as can be!” is what she tells her dino. infant.

Far from being put off, Picassaur continues with his creative endeavours, in glorious technicolour this time, but his father’s reaction is the same as his mother’s.

Despite his amazing third artistic effort, Picassaur’s cousins too respond negatively, telling him to forget his drawing and do battle instead.

Then all of a sudden they get the surprise of their lives …

Is that the end for all the little dinosaurs?

It certainly seems likely they’ll be the next meal for that T-rex; but something even scarier than himself meets his eye when he turns around …

Whoever thought pictures could be that powerful … Three cheers for peaceful solutions rather than conflict and another three for Picassaur who dared to be different.

Elli Woodward’s zippy rhyming text flows nicely inviting audience participation and in tandem with Steven Lenton’s spirited scenes of dinosaurs and the artistic outpourings of one of their number, makes for a fun story-time read aloud.

A rather different dino. character stars in:

Tyrannosaurus Wrecks!
Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen and Zachariah OHora
Abrams Appleseed

We all know that tyrannosaurs are renowned for their destructive ways and so it is for young Tyrannosaurus rex here. This young terror is not intentionally bad but his lack of awareness and over-exuberance results in a pre-school setting of angry-faced characters whose creative activities are ruined,

and whose quiet endeavours are disturbed.

Eventually thoroughly infuriated by all this wrecking, his classmates have had enough. “Tyrannosaurus – go!” comes the cry.

This causes contrition on the part of the antihero but even then his attempts to make amends flounder due to his ungainliness, at which point his fellow dinos. muck in, overseeing and facilitating the reparation.

However, just when harmony seems about to be restored we see that the little Tyro.dino. isn’t the only one capable of precipitating a disaster …

Zachariah OHora’s stand-out bright scenes of the classroom will attract pre-school humans but also include the occasional visual joke such as the Styracosaurus writing ‘climate change’ over and over on the chalk board to amuse adult readers aloud.
With its fun rhythm and rhyme, this stomping romp invites noisy audience participation.

Mixed

Mixed
Arree Chung
Macmillan Children’s Books

In the beginning there were three colours: Reds – the loud ones; Yellows – the bright ones and Blues – the laid-back ones, and they lived in harmony.
One afternoon though, the Reds took it upon themselves to declare that they were the best colour and that was the start of disharmony

resulting in the erection of fences, tall brick walls and separatism. Does that sound familiar?
However, one day a Yellow and a Blue notice one another and realise that their distinctive characteristics are of mutual benefit:

in short they become best buddies and more, to the alarm of the others of the three hues.
Love prevails, the two MIX and it’s not long before they’ve created a new colour they name Green. She has elements of both parents but is unique and, all the others love her.
So much so that they too begin to mix … and mix …

gradually transforming the entire neighbourhood into a harmonious, multi-coloured environment.
My immediate response to this straightforward story was ‘If only it were that simple.‘ That said the book contains powerful messages about the importance of diversity, acceptance and respect for others, as well as celebrating how  people’s differences can be tools for transformation.

Baking Bonanza: Dough Knights and Dragons / Jake Bakes a Monster Cake

Dough Knights and Dragons
Dee Leone and George Ermos
Sterling

Here’s a ‘Great British Bake Off’ tale set in the days of yore when dragons roamed and knights fought them.
A young knight comes upon a cave filled with novel ingredients and cannot resist cooking up a huge pot of savoury stew.
So delicious is its aroma that it arouses the resident dragon and before long the two have formed a forbidden friendship because it’s deemed in this land that every knight must slay a dragon and every dragon must eat a knight.
As their friendship flourishes so do their culinary skills but as the day of impending contest draws ever nearer, the two realise that they must cook up a clever solution by means of the thing that has bound them together in friendship.

And what a tasty solution that turns out to be with its mix of semantic niceties and unusual shaped doughnuts;

and the outcome changes the nature of competitions between knights and dragons for ever more,
This is a recipe for a lip-smacking storytime: there’s adventure, friendship, edibles, suspense, chivalry and a sweet ending, all delivered through a rhyming narrative readers aloud will enjoy sharing, and vibrant, playful digital illustrations.
Take a look at the end papers too.

More cooking in:

Jake Bakes a Monster Cake
Lucy Rowland and Mark Chambers
Macmillan Children’s Books

Jake is busy in the kitchen; he’s called in his pals to help him bake an extra delicious cake for sweet-loving Sam’s birthday tea.
His fellow monsters scoff at Jake’s cook book deeming instructions a waste of time …

and instead invent their own recipe, a concoction of altogether unsavoury items. Surprisingly, the mixture tastes pretty good to Jake though.

When it’s baked to perfection, off go Jake and his fellow cooks to deliver the enormous confection; but suddenly disaster strikes …
Is that the end of a wonderful birthday treat for Sam?
Lucy Rowland and Mark Chambers have together rustled up a deliciously disgusting tale. Lucy’s the rhymer and Mark the picture maker and their latest offering is sure to illicit plenty of EEUUGHs from young audiences.
There’s an added treat in the form of a pack of scratch ‘n’ sniff stickers: clothes pegs at the ready!