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.