Dark Sky Park

Dark Sky Park
Philip Gross illustrated by Jesse Hodgson
Otter-Barry Books

To say this book is extraordinary is no exaggeration.

Crafted with consummate skill every one of the poems is a gem, not least those that make up the four Tardigrade Sagas. There are, so Philip Gross tells us in a note, over 1000 tardigrade species; they’ve been on earth for 500 million years and are known also as water bears or moss piglets.
Tardigrade in its Element begins thus: ‘This is the kingdom of the Water Bear. / To enter here, you have to shrink / and slow down, down. / A day is one tick of the clock, one blink // of the sun’s eye.’

In Tardigrade in the Cambrian Era we learn: ‘I was there from the off – / the sound of life revving up all over. / This was, oh, a cool half billion years ago.’ Amazing, tiny eight-legged creatures, who can but marvel at such small wonders less than ½ mm. long? Here’s Tardigrade in Focus: ‘OK, so you imagine it: something / a thousand times your size – // a medium village, maybe, or a cloud / with an enquiring mind – // stops. Bends down very close … / Gets out its magnifying glass // and looks at you.’

In complete contrast very recent happenings are powerfully evoked in Aleppo Cat. Herein Gross describes a cat’s wanderings in the ruined city: ‘ First, months / of flash, thud, shudder. // then the wailing … // Months , // that’s half a young cat’s life’ … ‘Where the bread smells came from … // Gone. //And where the fish man // tossed the bones. // Gone. // Where the children chased her // with fierce cuddles, too young // to know their strength. // Gone.’
I have Syrian friends who came from that city a couple of years back with their two young children; this one made me shudder.

There’s humour too however, as in Extreme Aunt who ‘set off to school // with her four huskies, mush, mush! // to outrun the polar bears’; remembered as being ‘poised // on the diving board, the top, //with the wind in her hair. // She had to go further, further and it seems, // too far.’ Now she’s vanished and presently there’s a submarine searching for her.

There’s an Extreme Uncle and Extreme Dining too, if you’re fond of things in the extreme: the latter, a French establishment boasts ‘Pick our Own. // The whole garden’s underwater, a mangrove swamp. // You pay your money, you get your canoe, // (in the shadows, dark ripples and a sluggish // splash … ) your Swiss Army knife and harpoon.’ … Seemingly ‘It’s true // what the menu says: Our food’s so fresh // it bites. Eat it before it eats you’.
I think I’ll give this place a miss; it definitely doesn’t sit well with my vegetarian sensibilities.

Instead I’ll head over to The Extreme Music Festival and perhaps listen to The Storm Harp: ‘Tune up the mountain to the pitch // of music. Set each blade quivering. // Turn up the wind // until the hillside shudders like an animal // shrugging its pelt to scratch an itch.’ // Hear its sigh. Bring on the bad maraccas / of the slipping scree. The landslide starts.’

So vivid, as is, Moon Music: ‘She longed for night. // Now she sits with heavy // curtains open just a chink – a slant, a glint, a cool spark // in the darkened room, // hears how light pings // a prism off the mirror’s edge, // her glass of water tinkling // at its wink.’ Awesome.

Gross invites children in a footnote, to imagine their own kinds of extreme music noting, “The fantastical answers may turn out to say a lot about a real place, or person”.

This is a book to make its readers wonder, imagine, look, look and look again, listen and then wonder more. Gross’s poetic voice is enormously enriching, sometimes challenging, but always accessible.

Illustrator Jesse Hodgson has done a fine job illuminating many of the poems; her inky drawings are on occasion funny, beautiful, arresting or even downright scary,

sinister even.

If you want children to be tuned in to the magic and music of language, and who doesn’t, then this treasure trove is your book.

Nature & Around the World / Look, a Butterfly! / Little Boat

Nature
Around the World

Nosy Crow

These are the two latest additions to the wonderful board book series produced in collaboration with The British Museum, each presenting and celebrating cultures the world over, and inspired by the enormous British Museum collection.
Nature celebrates both the flora and fauna of the world and the elements, from a shell to the sun; the squirrel to the sunflower and the butterfly to blossom.

It’s absolutely gorgeous and certain to engender curiosity about the natural world.
In Around the World fourteen cultures are represented through items from near and far: Egypt, France, Britain, America, Germany, Japan, New Zealand, Korea, Mexico, Greece, China, Kenya and India each have a spread or page devoted to items including clothing,

musical instruments, buildings, jewellery, and much more.

Both are, like the rest of the series absolutely superb for developing language as well as being a brilliant way to introduce history and culture to your little ones, especially if you can combine it with a museum visit too.
If you can’t, worry not: each has an index as well as QR codes linking to additional information about each object featured.

Enormously worthwhile to add to bookshelves at home, or in an early years setting.

Look, a Butterfly!
Yasunari Murakami
Gecko Press

This lovely little board book is by award-winning Japanese artist/designer/author, Yasunari Murakami who is also an environmentalist and lover of wild-life. It begins with an irresistible invitation to notice, and then follow the journey of a butterfly as it explores what a flower garden has to offer.

We see the flower buds pop open and burst into a host of colours;

watch the little creature pause for a drink of nectar and revived, flit and flutter again before coming to rest upon a playful kitten.

This of course precipitates a game of flap and tease before the butterfly finally flies away.

Beautifully simple and attractively illustrated, it gives you an injection of joie-de-vivre and is perfectly honed  to be just right for sharing with tinies. Catch hold of this one before the butterflies disappear for the season.

Little Boat
Taro Gomi
Chronicle Books

Life lessons Little Boat style will delight fans of Taro Gomi’s previous Little Truck especially.

Here we follow Little Boat as he determinedly manoeuvres his way through bigger boats including a snarling one, braves the rough seas and stormy weather

until after his testing adventures, he finally meets his parent boat once more in calm waters.

Short and sweet: splendid entertainment for little ones and a great demonstration of remaining positive no matter what.

Unplugged

Unplugged
Steve Antony
Hodder Children’s Books

Steve Antony has departed from his usual illustrative style for this new book, a book with a vital message, very cleverly constructed and beautifully portrayed.
We first meet Blip in her plugged in black and white world, a world where yes, she learns new things, has fun, dances, travels even, albeit virtually, all day and every day.

Then one day there’s a power cut, disconnecting Blip from all of that, plunging her world into darkness and causing her to trip and go hurtling into the great outdoors.

There, Blip discovers are new things to learn, fun games to play, music to dance to and faraway places to visit, all day long and in the company of some wonderful new friends.
Inevitably though, the time comes for her to bid her friends farewell and return from this world of soft colours and joyful exuberance,

to go back to her plugged in existence. Now though, she knows at least something of the delights the real world has to offer.

Yes, we’ve heard the message before but never conveyed with such finesse as here. Steve has already set the bar extremely high with his Mr Panda stories and The Queen’s … sequence: now he’s reached new heights with this modern day parable.

A Walk in the Forest

A Walk in the Forest
Maria Dek
Princeton Architectural Press
In the forest, wonders await’. Thus begins what feels like a truly heartfelt advocacy of the joys to be discovered by taking up the author’s invitation to leave behind the civilised world and join the child narrator in an exploration of a magical place. What actually happens is that readers, immediately engaged, find themselves standing behind the boy’s head, or even in his shoes, as he becomes ensphered by the greens and browns of a jungly canopy; drags a stick behind him, chases dragonflies and goes down on his knees to observe some things he’s found (vignettes show these); runs wild amid brightly coloured birds and tree-coiling snakes.

Then gives full throttle to his vocal chords: and who can ignore the pull to ‘Follow footprints. See where they lead you.’ and even more important, ‘Look! Find treasure.’ Here Dek focuses our attention on the textures and shapes of those treasures – flowers, feathers, fir cones, stones and the tail of a lizard.

The contrasts are stark: ‘All is small in the forest. All is big. And deep.’ Who can resist the unspoken invitation to shed footwear and ‘Wade in’ feeling the cool of the pond and the tickle of those water plants and fishes?
Secrets surround: birds have them; trees have them – if you listen; and patience might result in an encounter with a fox
and perhaps one of the many forest burrowing animals that tend to keep themselves out of sight.
A treasure of a book; and with its constantly shifting perspectives …

an eloquent, visual and verbal evocation of nature: especially, it’s one to visit whenever you’re feeling a bit down. It will surely help lift your spirits and after re-reading, send you out in search of a wooded place where further joys await.
Dek’s watercolours do the flora and fauna of the natural world proud with her lush scenes and surprise, sometimes stunningly stark, discoveries.

Like those of Frost, her ‘woods are lovely, dark and deep’. But I too have promises to keep and so reluctantly, must leave the meditational peace and tranquillity of this debut children’s book creator’s verdant world and just say, you need this picture book gem; everybody does.

I’e signed the charter 

One Happy Tiger/ Colours: A Walk in the Countryside / My Little Cities: London

One Happy Tiger
Catherine Rayner
Little Tiger Press
What a delight to have Augustus back and between the sturdy covers of a wonderful board book. Everything about this is splendid from the look and feel of that cover through to Augustus’s sublime smile as he watches the movements of his ten friends on the final spread.
In between, he starts off sitting alone and then we see a sequence of encounters with 2 bugs (beetles I think); 3 birds with bright plumage; 4 ‘floating butterflies’;

5 dragonflies hover above his head. Augustus then bounds off leaving 6 large footprints and moves through a rain shower dancing with 7 ‘plump raindrops’ …

relaxes to watch 8 bees; splashes into the pool to tease 9 fish before clambering out to dry off in the sun and greet his friends all together.
This is a board book, (based Catherine Rayner’s Augustus and His Smile), that looks, apart from its sturdy card pages like a real picture book; and its shape is truly satisfying too. Adults will get as much pleasure as the toddlers they share this one with.

Colours: A walk in the countryside
Rosalind Beardshaw
Nosy Crow
Published in collaboration with the National Trust, this is another delightful countryside walk wherein readers accompany two toddlers on a joyful nature ramble; this time, it’s colour-related. We join the children as they exuberantly run down a slope surrounded by green – look closely and you’ll see a cricket and a butterfly on the plants. They stop to observe a ladybird on a grass stem in a poppyfield; then notice an orange-tip butterfly by a stone wall; a group of ants attracts the attention of the boy while the girl views a black bird through her binoculars. Their walk continues apace till picnic time, when they have a snack before moving on, all the while keeping their eyes open for interesting sightings such as …

A veritable paintbox of twelve colours and an entire rainbow are part and parcel of their rural ramblings. Awe and wonder for tinies: if this doesn’t inspire an adult to take their young infant out into the countryside on an observation walk, which may or may not mirror that of the children in this lovely little book, I’d be very surprised.

My Little Cities London
Jennifer Adams and Greg Pizzoli
Chronicle Books
Board the bus and take a tour of London. Ten of its famous landmarks are featured in this board book although none is named until the final spread whereon there is a ‘cast in order of appearance’ style briefing about each one depicted. The whole thing is beautifully presented, the text being in rhyming couplets; and the font changes on each spread.

Concepts such as new/old, many/few, soft/hard (rain) are introduced in relation to The Tower of London, the Shard, Trafalgar Square (many pigeons), the Natural History Museum (few dinosaur skeletons), and the two final spreads show wonderful illuminations – the London Eye

and Big Ben – against the night sky.
Altogether a class act, with so much to see and so much to talk about: that’s London. Author, Adams, and illustrator, Pizzoli, have, for toddlers, done it proud.

I’ve signed the charter  

Footpath Flowers

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Footpath Flowers
JonArno Lawson and Sydney Smith
Walker Books
To me this is a poem in pictures – poetry in motion only without the words and a pretty near perfect one too; an ode to young children, to the small wonders of nature, to joy in fact. The whole book is a small treasure.
Hand-in-hand, a child (I think a girl) and a man walk, through an urban landscape seemingly without speaking to one another. He is preoccupied with his mobile, the shopping and getting home. The child however, keeps stopping to pick the wild flowers that grow out – as wild flowers do – from all manner of cracks and corners;

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she smells each one lovingly and soon collects a small bunch. But then, still paying attention to the small things around, she notices a dead bird on the path and with due reverence, leaves her first bouquet on the bird.

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Next to receive her attention is a man (homeless?) snoozing on a park bench: he too receives a floral gift, as does a dog

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and once home she bestows floral offerings on her mum and her siblings. That leaves her just one flower:

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and she’s still walking. Whither next we wonder?

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Those of us who work with young children know that they often exhibit – like the child here – a sense of awe and wonder, a connectedness with nature and with their fellow beings and given opportunities for living in the moment, they demonstrate that felt sense, or sometimes even flow state, that young children can inhabit. To me this book is a demonstration of that and it’s achieved by its creators really getting down to the child’s eye level and showing us things from that perspective. I cannot praise too much the Canadian poet author’s storyline and the way in which he has left Sydney Smith to translate that into visual poetry with just the right amount of sentiment and judicious use of colour.

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His perspective in both full-page scenes and smaller strip-frames, is always that of the child; and this is key. So too is the fact that at no time does the adult become impatient or harass the child; rather he walks on but waits with outstretched hand at appropriate moments. (Would that every child had such an adult who showed that depth of understanding.)
Full of poignancy, this is a book to revisit and to cherish.

Use your local bookshop localbookshops_NameImage-2

Birds, Beasts and Sausages

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Little Answer
Tim Hopgood
Picture Corgi pbk
Most people have plenty of questions to which they seek answers but sad, lost Little Answer is desperate to find the question to which he is THE answer. Snail offers to help him in his search and off they go. The first encounter is with elephant; his question is (of course) a big one; “What makes the world go round?

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Elephant is totally unimpressed with Little Answer’s response of “Sausages!” Butterfly, Ladybird and Owl are equally unimpressed when they get the same response to their difficult questions.
Snail begins to have doubts about Little Answer fitting any question at all;

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he certainly is not the correct answer to Rabbit’s “Where did everything come from?” No giving up now though, says Snail to a departing Little Answer but then along comes Daisy with something very important to ask …

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This story is an absolute joy to read aloud and has had enthusiastic responses at every sharing with the children on the edge of their ‘seats’ as they anticipate Little Answer’s response each time. Not only is it very funny, it’s beautifully constructed and the tenor is spot on.
So too are the child-friendly illustrations created with simple outlines, shapes and strokes of brush, pen, crayon and pastel on mostly pale coloured papers.
Moreover, countless possibilities for exploration – artistic and philosophical – lie herein.
Buy from Amazon

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The Dawn Chorus
Suzanne Barton
Bloomsbury Children’s Books
When Peep hears a beautiful song nearby he is determined to discover its singer. Off he flies, stopping to ask in turn, the owl, a mouse and then a frog. The frog directs him to its source – a tree atop a hill and there he finds a whole host of birds all singing. “We’re the Dawn Chorus,” one informs Peep. Peep immediately wants to join them and an audition is duly arranged for dawn the following day. Peep flies home and practices hard until he falls fast asleep. But next morning to his horror, he discovers he’s missed that day’s singing and begs for a second chance. The following day, having practiced so much and stayed awake all night, he is so tired he can only yawn at the audition.

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It’s a very sad Peep that flies off home and as the sun sets he sings softly. His song is answered by a similar-looking bird.
Why can I sing in the evening… but not … with the Dawn Chorus? “ Peeps asks. Thereupon he receives an explanation and at the same time discovers his true identity and most importantly, finds a soul mate.

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It is possible to detect the Japanese influence on Suzanne Barton’s lovely, mixed media, almost child-like, illustrations. I particularly like the way she has worked those fabrics into her portrayal of the owl

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and Peep’s Indian woodblock print-looking wings.
Here assuredly is an artist to follow with interest; this debut book is a delight from cover to cover. The story itself sends out – like the birds’ songs – a powerful message about identity and belonging and discovering your true self.
Buy from Amazon

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Little Tree
Jenny Bowers
The Big Picture Press
This book is a true wonder to behold. Superbly conceived, illustrated and designed, it takes readers through the seasons alongside Little Tree, showing its changes and those of the surrounding habitat during the course of a year.
Ingenious use is made of the flaps, which serve in a similar fashion to more traditional labels, drawing the attention to particular features the names of which are revealed when the flaps are lifted.

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Nina and Rosa spent ages exploring the wonders of the spring.

Even more ingenious though, is the placing of the developing Little Tree in the same position on each right hand page, while on the left each time we are shown a mature tree and the seasonal changes that undergoes, further enhanced by a strategically placed flap. For instance, in winter, the mature tree has an insect resting in a hole in its trunk covered by a flap in the shape of a seed head; on the next (spring) page the same hole harbours a birds’ nest with first ‘eggs’

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and then chicks, are discovered by lifting the flaps. Summer brings the birds leaving the nest,; in autumn a squirrel eating an acorn is beneath a leaf in the same spot and winter has a mouse nestling in the place the birds have abandoned Thus seasonal change and revelation go hand in hand as a child works through the book.

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DSCN2028 A real sense of awe and wonder is evoked as the sturdy board pages are turned and children explore the delights contained on each and every spread and hear  the gentle poetic  accompanying text.
A treasure trove of opportunities – artistic, poetic and scientific and of course, discussion, is contained within the covers of this gem of a book. No primary classroom should be without at least one copy.
Buy from Amazon

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Nominations for The Queen of Teen 2014 award are called for. For further information visit: www.queenofteen.co.uk