Weird Wild & Wonderful

Weird Wild & Wonderful
James Carter, illustrated by Neal Layton
Otter-Barry Books

James Carter’s selection of his own works might be divided into the three sections of its title, but for me, every one of the fifty herein is, in its own way, wonderful.

The first part – ‘Weird’ – contains those poems that their author calls daft or cheeky, or perhaps both. My favourite is Spot the Fairytales (aka Ten Tiny Senryū) or 17 syllable present tense haiku. Here are some examples: Enter if you dare – / three breakfasts; one broken chair. / Off to bed? / Beware … // A cute bird calling / an urgent word of warning – / ‘THE SKY IS FALLING!!’ // … She’s poshed up in bling – / grooving with the future king. / Slipper fits. KERCHING!

Among the daft is a clever shape poem (one of several ) called Lullaby for a Woolly Mammoth that you can sing to the tune of Twinkle, twinkle …

Among the entirely new poems and included in the ‘Wild’ section is The Elephant’s ODE to the DUNG BEETLE. That one really made me laugh and I love Neal Layton’s illustration of same.

Not all the poems are light-hearted though. Anything but is another shape poem Who Cares? … a stark warning against the thoughtless and selfish ways people are harming our precious wildlife.

In the final ‘Wonderful’ part are some of James’ science poems and quiet poems. One of the latter that spoke to me immediately is another new, and timely one – It’s … Kindness. On this particular day I’m also drawn to That’s Poetry, Where Do You Get Your Ideas From? and, School Library!. Here are its first and last verses: Where are doorways made of words? / That open into other worlds? / Welcoming all boys and girls. // SCHOOL LIBRARY // … Tempted? Go on, have a look. / You never know, you might get hooked. / Your whole life changed by just one book … // SCHOOL LIBRARY! Who knows? It just might be this smashing book of poems – there’s something for all tastes therein: it most definitely hooked this reviewer. The book fairy in another of Neal’s terrific illustrations awaits to lure you in.

A Planet Full of Plastic

A Planet Full of Plastic
Neal Layton
Wren & Rook

Neal Layton has created an absolutely superb information book on a topic that’s on many people’s minds at present.

Right away he addresses the reader with ‘Quick question: do you ever think about what things are made of? ’ and goes on to mention other materials such as metal, wood, glass and paper before focussing in on plastic; plastic in all its shapes, colours and sizes.

We learn about the discovery of the material by chemist Mr Baekeland and how rapidly it became enthusiastically used in pretty much anything you might think of.

Plastic in the places it should be is all well and good, but the trouble is it doesn’t biodegrade and therein lies the problem. (Neal explains what this means with two sequences of strip pictures)

What eventually happens is that much of this plastic finds its way into our oceans

where it creates big problems for the marine animals as well as forming massive garbage patches in the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Oceans, especially in the form of toxic microplastic particles.

All of us need to cut down on our use of plastic, especially that used only once,  is what we’re powerfully reminded here …

Neal’s narrative style is perfectly pitched for the intended audience – there’s not a scrap of preachiness about it – and his mixed media illustrations are a powerful reminder of the ubiquitous problems of plastic waste.

Children and young people care deeply about the environment as they’ve already demonstrated and the book concludes with a ‘How you can help section’.

If the government is really serious about the environment, and in particular the terrible effects of throwaway plastic, then perhaps they should fund a copy of this timely book for all primary schools and nurseries.

Friends for a Day

Friends for a Day
Neal Layton
Hodder Children’s Books

Oh, oh, this is achingly adorable, a real treasure of a book that is both poignant and joyful by the absolute master of sublime, scribbly artwork, Neal Layton who is a self confessed lover of bears. As I started to read it I thought hey, this is a bit familiar and then realised it is actually a reincarnation of Bartholomew and the Bug published almost fifteen years ago. Nevertheless, those children I shared it with back then are all grown up now and it’s exciting to think it’s once again available to a whole new generation of listeners.

Bartholomew is a laid back bear who lives an undemanding existence atop a mountain although occasionally contemplating the world down in the valley with its twinkling lights: maybe one day, he thinks to himself.

However that day comes a lot sooner than he’d anticipated: enter Bug. This tiny creature is in urgent need of Bartholomew’s assistance. Whatever the reason for the hurry, it’s pretty clear that Bug cannot go it alone and so the bear and bug set off together for the bright lights.

What a truly epic adventure this turns out to be (117 miles of travelling)

and all the while Bartholomew’s tiny pal seems to grow ever more eager to reach their destination.

The two finally arrive at the big city in record-breaking time and it truly is a surprising sight but where are all those lights?

Before long Bartholomew discovers just what all the hurry was for as thousand upon thousand of wonderful bugs of all shapes and sizes wing their way into the neon lights that come on only when darkness falls.

An awesome time is had by all but then comes the moment –it’s full of poignancy – when Bartholomew realises that his job is done and it’s time to bid farewell to his tiny pal.

Yes, some days are never forgotten and some books likewise. This is one of those, and like all special stories, it leaves plenty of gaps for child audiences to fill.

Danny McGee Drinks the Sea


Danny McGee Drinks the Sea
Andy Stanton and Neal Layton
Hodder Children’s Books
Authors often talk about getting inside a character’s head but I’ve never heard of one getting inside a character’s stomach before. Andy Stanton did just that though: he wrote, so he’d have us believe, this entire book from within one, Danny McGee; and it certainly didn’t have an adverse effect on his wicked sense of humour.
How did he get therein, you might well be wondering so let’s start at the beginning and meet young Danny and his sister Frannie McGee as they head towards the beach in their little red car.


Once there, Danny, for some reason known only to himself, announces that he can drink the sea – all of it – and within ten minutes, he has. This however is not enough for the lad who turns his attention to a tree …


followed by pretty much everything you can think of and some you can’t.
Before long, young Danny has gleefully consumed virtually the whole of humankind (hence the author),


not to mention the whole Roman alphabet and goodness knows how much of our number system.
And he just keeps going until there’s nothing left but himself, or so he thinks …
The denouement to Stanton’s wonderfully anarchic rhyming tale is something of a jaw dropper and one young listeners will relish.
The combination of Stanton’s supreme verbal silliness and Neal Layton’s brilliantly bizarre visuals,


combining comic cartoon and photo-collage, is an unforgettable nonsense tale that will be requested over and over.

Environmental Concerns

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The Tree
Neal Layton
Walker Books
There stands a tree – tall and proud – a conifer that’s home to fledglings in a nest, a squirrel family, an owl one and amidst its roots, a family of rabbits. Beside the tree stands a FOR SALE board.
Then come a man and woman, also intent on making a home. The work begins …

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and halts suddenly –

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Tears are shed. Then, it’s back to the drawing board …

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and after a whole lot of measuring, hefting, hammering and painting, the result is …

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Like the humans in this seemingly simple book, Neal Layton’s fable wields a lot of power. In just fifty words and a sequence of gently humorous illustrations, he delivers a vital message about the importance of humans and animals living together and sharing.
This one delivers on so many levels: In addition to sharing it with young (and not so young listeners), I suggest giving a copy to those developers who pay scant regard to the destruction of natural habitats when drawing up and executing their plans.
In addition, it’s a perfect learning to read book that blows mindlessly boring reading schemes right out of the water.

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Where’s the Starfish?
See the whale – an enormous one and the brightly coloured fish – a whole multitude of them; then there’s the Starfish, the Jellyfish and the Clownfish.

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Can you spot them? Keep turning the pages and you’ll notice something else starting to appear, something undesirable and alien to the ocean. The fish appear somewhat puzzled but turn over again; the rubbish pile has grown and Starfish, Jellyfish and Clownfish are slightly easier to spy.
On the next few spreads larger rubbish items appear – car parts, washing machines, a fridge, TVs, microwaves– all evidence of our thoughtless, throwaway society; but the fish numbers have declined significantly and it’s easier still to spot our three friends.

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Finally whale cannot take it any longer and taking matters into his own hands – or rather – snout – he takes revenge in an altogether satisfying manner.

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Work out for your self – or better, get the book and see for yourself – what happens hereafter …
This, like Where’s the Elephant? is a an enormously effective and affecting lesson on how we harm our precious natural environment: the conservation message is the same though the setting of the story is entirely different.

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Where the Bugaboo Lives

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Where the BUGABOO Lives
Sean Taylor and Neal Layton
Walker Books
How many ways are there to read a story? In this instance, I’m still trying to discover the answer. It assuredly puts the reader very much in control; you can if you wish stop reading at page 7 for instance; or …
I took the scary option and went with Ruby and her brother Floyd (who is desperate to retrieve his ball that’s rolled down into the valley wherein the scariest of all creatures THE BUGABOO resides). Eventually I found myself here

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but you can of course guess what I did then …
You might be pierced by a prickle-beast, eviscerated by a hungry Old English Spook, tossed terrifyingly by a troll, stunk out by a scuttling spider, drooled upon by a demon, battered by a bony hobgoblin

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or worse. It all depends whether you go uphill or down; follow the spring path or the autumn one; wander on a winter way

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or take a summer stroll, head for the smoke or the coloured lights.
This one comes with a parental warning as it’s overflowing with the kind of terrifying creatures that will make adults run for cover. The whole thing is crammed with crocs, bedevilled with blood-sucking mosquitoes,

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inhabited by giant infants, a-fire with fearsome fiends, sweetly scented by snooze-inducing sniffers – daisies actually but pretty powerful ones. And that’s not all.
Oh! And if kisses aren’t your thing, be alert and join Floyd and Ruby in their mad homeward dash. PHEW!
I foresee family fights ensuing over this book and one copy in a classroom will definitely not be enough to cope with the demand.
Gloriously ghoulish, amazingly awesome and eminently re-readable; it’s brimming over with visual and verbal delights.
Miss this one at your peril. Or perhaps that should be, get hold of it at your peril.

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Journeys with Elephants

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Gracie captivated by Raju’s journey with his mother

Timothy Knapman and Patrick Benson
Walker Books
A mummy elephant opens the eyes of her little one, Raju to the wonders of the world around when she takes him on a long walk. They travel to the river where crocodiles snap, the shadowy forest where snakes slither,

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the tall grass wherein a tiger prowls and climb to the top of a mountain from where Raju sees his whole world before him and the two agree that it’s beautiful. Even then though, Raju’s only question like always, is, “When can we go home again?” But when she has tenderly led him back home, past the tiger, the snake and the crocodiles, her weary offspring wants to know, “When can we do it all again?” As always, this beautiful book’s title is her response.
Patrick Benson’s use of light and shade magically evokes passage of the day and the journey of the elephants through the changing Indian landscapes – landscapes that are aglow with sunlight and finally, moonlight.

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I know not whether he has actually seen such scenes: I have and they definitely are, spot on. Make sure you don’t miss those gorgeous endpapers.
Knapman’s use of repetition serves to add weight to the words of warning and reassuring actions of Mummy elephant who keeps a steadfast vigilance and knows exactly what to do to keep her young one safe at every potentially dangerous encounter.

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A book to visit over and over, as I imagine that mountain-top will be by the elephant characters therein.

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Emily Brown and the Elephant Emergency
Cressida Cowell and Neal Layton
Hodder Children’s Books pbk
Emily, Stanley and elephant pal, Matilda are whitewater rafting on the Zambezi river in order to investigate some mysterious footprints they hope will lead to the discovery of a new dinosaur species. In case of emergencies, they have a telephone but the trouble is Matilda’s extremely anxious mother insists on ringing to check that her offspring is wearing her wellies (I ask you), keeping warm and not ending up as some creature’s next meal. Moreover, she insists on calling at the most inopportune, moments for ridiculous, non-emergency reasons just when the intrepid explorers are for example, scaling the heights of Mount Everest.
Indeed it’s pretty clear that the only real problem is these constant check-up calls: the phone itself has become a tyrannical nuisance.

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Then Matilda decides to sit out of the diamond search; could she possibly have become ensnared by her own worst fears, or rather her mum’s? …

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And is there another explanation for the sudden absence of that Ri-i-i-ing! Ri-i-i-i-ng sound that has seemed so all- pervasive?
Wonderfully witty and at times, woeful illustrations of the friends, show the energetic characters delighting in their freedom to explore, while the pesky phone is never far from the view. And, I just love that throwaway ending.
Over-anxious parents take note…

If elephants are your thing then you will also like:

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Suzi Eszterhas
Frances Lincoln Children’s Books pbk
This is one of the excellent Eye on the Wild series by an award-winning wildlife photographer. Herein we follow a new born African bull elephant as he slowly grows and develops into a full-grown adult some fifteen years later.
The many aspects of family life are shown, the herd being a matriarchal society wherein all the females work together sharing the care of the young elephants. The photographs – small and full page or double spread – beautifully portray life in the herd. There are in addition some close ups such as one of the tough wrinkled skin, which helps protect the elephant from the baking sun and the playful water-hole scenes are a delight.

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In addition to the straightforward narrative text, there is a final page giving additional facts opposite which is a powerful image of the bull elephant going off alone through the grassy savannah.
Simple but very effective and ideal for helping to instill a love and understanding of the natural world in the young, be they at home or in an early years/younger primary classroom.

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Diverting Dog Tales

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Seb and Hamish
Jude and Niki Daly
Frances Lincoln Children’s Books
Like this reviewer, (who was mauled by an Alsatian aged five) young Seb suffers from cynophobia. Consequently, when he accompanies his mother on a visit to Mrs Kenny and hears ‘Woof-woof! Woof-woof’ coming from inside when they ring the doorbell his response is “Home.” (think mine would have been too.)

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Seb’s unease worsens when he comes face to face with the high-spirited Hamish but once he’s safely shut away, Seb begins to entertain himself.

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But when Seb stops his toy train for a tea break (courtesy of Mrs Kenny’s freshly baked cookies) he loses the nose button from a cookie and it rolls under a door: The very door behind which is Hamish. The two come finger to tongue

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and then, eye-to-eye, then slowly and tentatively, a new friendship is formed.

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(Did time speed up here, one wonders? Can a deep-seated fear be overcome so easily and rapidly?)
Nevertheless a heartwarming story all in all and it’s good to see that Mrs K. was so understanding and accommodating about Seb’s fear of her pet; not all dog-owners are.
Very engaging watercolour illustrations; I particularly love the littering of canine

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(or rather dachshund) ephemera in some scenes.

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Michael Rosen and Neal Layton
Bloomsbury Children’s Books
A witty, offbeat tale of starting school told from the viewpoint of a book-writing dog, whose human, Rover is going to school for the first time. Rex, (who bears a striking resemblance to the author), Cindy – Rover’s mum and Howler (so named on account of her continual Cindy-distracting howls), make up the rest of the cast. Oh and the Monster of the title from whom the narrator seeks to save his pet human. Seemingly the entire family is in a bit of a state judging from the chaotic scenes on the all-important morning

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and the frantic departure, which leaves our canine narrator alone in the house, temporarily at least. But then he makes a break for it, following his sniffer, hot on the trail of Rover

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all the way to ‘a place where hundreds of other small humans are kept. ‘ The determined creature finds a way into the ‘cage’ (full of monsters?) where he proceeds to create chaos and confusion before ascertaining that all is well with Rover; and having discovered she’s actually enjoying herself, goes back home. And there he waits until her return, just like always.
Comical telling and visuals are part and parcel of the package, the third to feature this family and its artistic creators.

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Very Little Cinderella

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Very Little Cinderella
Teresa Heapy and Sue Heap
Very Little Cinderella, with her “lello boots” and “BIG blue scooter” is truly adorable. So too is this the second ‘Very Little’ story to come from the partnership of Heapy and Heap. The basic story is pretty much left intact with Cinderella doing the cleaning, a fairy godmother (aka the babysitter) and a very patient one she turns out to be, an outing to the ball – that’s for the Ugly Sisters of course, not VLC who is left at home distraught, temporarily at least. But I did say the basic plot remains, so our tiny heroine does get to go to the ball, or party as it’s called here. Small she may be, but Very Little Cinderella has an enormous amount of determination, so it’s only after a whole lot of palaver over her choice of attire

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and mode of transport to said party.

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There’s dancing, – lots of it, a midnight-striking clock and a mad dash home which leaves a soon distraught VLC minus one of her ‘lello boots. There follows the arrival of a prince – a Very Little prince clutching a very little boot (and a small bunny), and a triumphant “It fits me!”

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and another meeting of the Prince and Cinderella. But remember these two are both Very Littles so it has to be a play-date and of course, ‘they both played happily ever after.’
Another certain winner for this author/artist partnership. Whither next I wonder…

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The girls in one of the groups I shared the story with were inspired to design new dresses for VLC to wear to the party.


On the subject of wonderful duos, it’s great to see paperback reissues of two stories about one of my very favourite young characters, Emily Brown, and constant companion, Stanley, her much-loved old grey rabbit.
That Rabbit Belongs to Emily Brown
Emily Brown and the Thing
Cressida Cowell and Neal Layton
Hodder Children’s Books
In the first, young Emily asserts her ownership of Stanley in no uncertain terms when Queen Gloriana attempts to procure him for herself, although she does have a put up with his temporary absence when her majesty’s Special Commandos creep into her bedroom and steal him one night as Emily sleeps.

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The Thing referred to in the title of the second story is a large greenish scriffily-scraffily creature that lands up on Emily Brown’s windowsill one night when out searching for his cuddly. The Thing seeks Emily’s help in his hunt but even when they find the cuddly quite soon, it’s only the beginning of what turns out to be a very disturbed night for young Emily: is there to be no end to the demands that Thing makes on her during the course of an action-packed few hours until she finally discovers the real cause of the Thing’s restlessness.
Wonderful stuff.

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Baby Booms, Blues and Bumps


Boom, Baby, Boom Boom!
Margaret Mahy and Margaret Chamberlain
Frances Lincoln
As with any text penned by Margaret Mahy (what a sad loss she is), this one sparkles throughout with wit and joie de vie. We meet a smiling, musical Mama and her small offspring who is, in the first spread, being placed in her high chair in preparation for the delicious meal she is about to consume. That is the plan anyhow; what happens is altogether different. Unknown to Mama, who is ready for a spot of relaxing drumming, she is watched by a whole host of farmyard animals listening intently at the open window.


As she drums the baby tosses each item of her wholesome spread onto the floor starting with the cheese. In dashes the yellow cat and hastily consumes it. So begins a concatenation of food hurling and animal consuming as the brown dog, red rooster and hens, black-faced sheep


and brown- and-white cow all dash in and gratefully gobble in turn, the bread and honey, apple slices, lettuce leaves and carrots and then exit again. Back comes an envigorated mama, spies the empty plate, congratulates the baby on eating her lunch and after hugs and kisses, feeds her a banana. And guess what, that
baby ate it all up.
The story is an absolute joy to read aloud and Margaret Chamberlain splendidly captures the upbeat tenor of the telling in her hilarious illustrations and at the same time, adds her own humorous touches, further adding to the book’s sparkling delights.
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Baby’s Got the Blues
Carol Diggory Shields and Lauren Tobia
Walker Books
How does it feel to be a baby? Have you ever wondered from your adult standpoint? Well, here we have it, told from the viewpoint of the baby narrator of this book.
They certainly don’t have it easy – well definitely not this one, indeed it’s enough to give you the blues, the baby blues no less. Soggy nappies in sleep suits, stinky dampness,


unsatisfying yucky, gum friendly food, falling over flat and behind those jail-like bars blues.


But, then come the compensatory cuddles and kisses and I love yous; just what’s needed to chase away those
B-A-B-Y’  blues  – oh yeah!
Actually though, life is not quite as bad as all that. In this up-to the minute family, Baby’s Mum is a pony-tailed wearer of jogging bottoms with loving, scoop you up arms ready at just the right moment and there is an older, red-haired sibling who sports a princess crown and knows just how to make sure she is always part of the action.
With its swinging, catchy and chantable text and delicious scenes that capture small domestic details to perfection, (big sister and baby wearing matching bibs for instance,) this is likely to become a firm favourite wherever there is a bouncing babe. Lauren Tobia seems set to follow in Helen Oxenbury’s footsteps.
In a word, gorgeous.
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Emily Peppermint’s Toy School
Jeanne Willis and Vanessa Cabban
Walker Books
It’s the first day of term at Emily Peppermint’s educational establishment but what is on the curriculum for the new pupils? Unlike other schools, the main subject, Emily informs toys Gumbo, Little Ted, Edie, Shmoo and Tinny Tim. is ‘children’ and where best to start? With babies, of course. ‘ “Babies aren’t made like toys,” explained Emily. “They’re born and grow into children.” ‘Grow?” gasped Edie. “If I grew, my knickers wouldn’t fit!” “You forgot to put them on,” said Gumbo.’


So, that’s development dealt with in brief.
Now onto practical lessons: We larger humans all know what babies in prams do with their toys. So, the next important thing to learn is how to fall out of a pram safely when ejected baby- style; hard hats are needed for this one.


All teachers know the value of using the outdoors as a learning environment so the class moves alfresco, to the top of a hill no less. First to jump, or rather fling himself, is Tinny Tin. His jump triggers a frantic downhill chase with the toys ending up SPLAT! in a muddy heap.
There’s only one thing for it – the next lesson … swimming.


Much of Jean Willis’s text is in the form of dialogue spoken between the toys themselves or Emily and her pupils; it is full of gentle humour and the idea of presenting babies from a toys’ perspective is inspired. Vanessa Cabban beautifully captures that humour in her diverting scenes of classroom capers and comical misadventures.
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This is me, EATING!
Neal Layton
Walker Books
This is a deliciously upbeat addition to the ‘first experiences’ series of board books. Herein we meet Mum, Dad, Dog, Granny, Worm and the small, totally endearing infant narrator, as they eat ‘a crunchy apple’, ‘a sticky sandwich’, ‘a big bone’, ‘smelly cheese’, ‘mucky mud’ and


‘lots of things’ respectively. Just half a dozen spreads but so much to relish both visually and verbally; altogether a tasty treat for the very youngest. In addition, with its patterned text and illustrations that are closely matched with the large print sentences, young beginning readers might well whet their palates on this one.
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I Love You, Baby
Giles Andreae and Emma Dodd
Orchard Books
A happy-sounding, shock-haired toddler introduces the brand new baby:
One fat tummy, tight like a drum. Two little cheeks on one little bum!


We share a family day together, with Mum who drives the car, Dad who baths the babe (along with elder sibling).


Then they sit down to a snack together, take a walk with babe tucked up tight in the pram,


back home for a squishy, kissy cuddle up, another bathing session for the babe followed by a goodnight cuddle and kiss on those ‘two warm cheeks, all rosy and bright,
Finally it’s time for sleep and the toddler and parents gaze adoringly at the sleeping newcomer to their family. All the while, the focus is on the little babe though the charming narrator, sporting a number 1 T-shirt, seems pretty sure of his place in the pecking order and remains an equal partner in the action throughout. Let’s just hope this bliss remains!
Another winner from the Andreae/Dodd duo: pleasingly readable, bouncy rhyming text that is pitch-perfect for those oh so cute, child characters, so winningly portrayed.
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