Billy and the Dragon

Billy and the Dragon
Nadia Shireen
Jonathan Cape

One of my favourite picture book characters from last year, Billy, and her sidekick Fatcat, return for another action-packed adventure.

It all begins with the two setting out to a fancy dress party, Fatcat rather more reluctantly, but fuelled by the promise of cake.

On arrival Billy greets their friends while Fatcat heads straight for the food. He doesn’t quite make it though for he’s seized by enormous claws and whisked skywards.

After a quick rummage around in her hair Billy produces a telescope that she uses to locate Fatcat’s whereabouts

and operation ‘save Fatcat’ commences.

Billy, the mice, the little bunny rabbits, Fox and Hedgehog (less enthusiastically) head for the Deep Dark Forest. How on earth (or sky) is Billy going to get herself up the massive tree wherein Fatcat has been plonked?

Happily Hedgehog has come with some of the party stuff. But a fiery roar from the fearsome dragon kidnapper puts paid to her first attempt and then the catnapper takes to the air again, coming to land in an even more terrifying spot.

So terrifying in fact that only Billy continues on the perilous journey during which she comes upon and ‘rescues’ a scaly little creature that she takes along with her.

This might just be the wisest move she’s made, for eventually this is the sight that meets her eyes …

Once again, Nadia’s perfectly paced story is a winner; it’s full of moments to savour and the drama is brought out so brilliantly in her smashing scenes of the chief protagonist and her supporting animal cast. (Watch out for the worm.)

Bring on the next one.

Where’s the Mermaid? / Crossword Puzzles for Vacation & Word Search Puzzles for Vacation

Where’s the Mermaid?
Chuck Whelon
Pop Press
Meria mermaid and her 10, finned friends, no make that 9 since one’s a ball, visit sixteen different locations, some I’d say highly unsuitable for aquatic beings but the mad characters have gone and hidden themselves in such crazy places as a hair salon, a circus big top (they need help to escape from here) and a pop concert, as well as some rather more fitting ones including the Mer King’s sub-aquatic palace where a special celebratory parade is taking place;
under the Arctic ice of at the North Pole where they engage in a plastic pollution clean up and a lido-type thing at beach Hotel Bliss.

It is, according to the PR from Penguin Random House, the year of the mermaid. Really? I must have missed something, somewhere. No matter, I know quite a few young mermaid fans (some are also unicorn enthusiasts) who will be delighted to lay hands/fins on a copy of this search-and-find adventure book.

The entire book is pretty crazy but lots of fun. It’s likely to challenge even the most practised spotters as they search each scene for Meria and her entourage frolicking among the crowds.

Hours of fin-some fun assured for those that take the plunge into the colourful spreads and become caught up in cartoonist Chuck Whelon’s funny scenarios. Oh, I forgot to say, the Mer King’s precious golden mer-treasures are rumoured to have been stolen and tracking them down will entail another round of searching and puzzling: there are more than 30 golden objects as well as over 30 suspects. It’s as well that all the answers are provided on the final spreads.

Crossword Puzzles for Vacation
Trip Payne
Word Search Puzzles for Vacation

Mark Danna
Puzzle Wright Junior

The first title contains 40 crossword puzzles for young solvers from 8ish to enjoy. Most of the content is likely to be within the knowledge range of youngsters though the odd clue here and there may well need some adult or older sibling/friend in-put.
And just in case everyone is completely flummoxed, the answers are all given at the end of the book.

The 58 word searches in the second book are thematic with topics ranging from things made of glass –‘Looking (for) Glass’ to ‘Seuss on the Loose’ – I particularly like that one. To add to the fun, the word searches are a variety of interesting shapes appropriate to the particular puzzle theme; so for instance ‘Just Say No’ wherein every word contains the letters NO, the puzzle is shaped thus …

whereas ‘Tree-mendous’ is a tree-shaped puzzle. (Note: the spelling of some words is American)
There are also puzzles within puzzles too, and every one contains a hidden message; it might be a silly saying, a riddle or perhaps a pun.

Hours of fun sans screens guaranteed with these two pocket sized paperbacks and they’re just right to tuck into a bag for a long car journey or for holidays.

More Would You Rather

More Would You Rather …
John Burningham
Jonathan Cape (Penguin Random House Children’s Books)

There’s been a recent spate of books celebrating the amazing achievements of women and men from all walks of life and from all over the world, as well as others putting forward the notion that where girls are concerned, they can do anything they set their minds to.
In his new book, John Burningham, (or rather the cheeky-looking child on the cover) invites readers to do something rather different; to ponder somewhat more unlikely possibilities posited in a series of questions. He wants us to consider the unlikely, and to make a choice about such rather disgusting sounding scenarios as having a camel being sick down your neck, an elephant emitting an extremely stinky toot, or falling flat in a field full of cows and your face landing in a pile of s— .

Pet ‘perhapses’ are – a cuddly koala, a vicious-looking vulture, a jagged-toothed alligator or a winsome woolly sheep. Hmm?

Just imagine the excuses you’d have to come up with should you be careless enough ‘to break Granny’s favourite jug’, ‘scratch the car’ or ‘spill paint all over the carpet’ – whoops!

Then, supposing if for no apparent reason you were the source of amusement to all and sundry; would that be better than having an eagle steal all your clothes? (Even worse might be the latter happening in front of that crowd.)

I’ve never got sufficiently close up to a hippo of any sort, let alone one with bad breath, and I don’t have an Aunt Zelda, but I wouldn’t relish having to cope with either of those bestowing a kiss upon me. On with the trainers and a hasty retreat, would be my response.
Think about having to spend a night under the stars – no not at a seaside campsite – but with your bed on the moon; is that preferable to nestling up with a whole lot of baby birds, or is the safety of your own bed the best option?

I wonder …
And that phrase is the key to this fabulous book. I’ve spent countless happy hours with various classes of children UUUUGGGHH! -ing and YUCK!-ing, laughing over, deliberating on, , discussing and generally having a whole lot of fun, with Burningham’s original Would You Rather so I cannot wait to share this one with all its imagination-rousing potential.

Need more ideas for your children’s holiday reading: try Toppsta’s Summer Reading Guide

Billy and the Beast

Billy and the Beast
Nadia Shireen
Jonathan Cape

Billy is a girl with an amazing head of hair – she sometimes uses it for secreting useful items, items such as doughnuts for the occasions, pretty frequent by all accounts, when her sidekick, Fatcat, gets an attack of the tummy rumbles.

This is what happens near the start of this yummy story while the pair stroll through the forest together greeting various woodland creatures – Hedgehog, Fox, a trio of mice and ‘three adorable little bunny rabbits’.

However on their return journey, as they notice a distinct lack of their forest dwelling pals they’re suddenly plunged into darkness.

That darkness being the inside of a sack clutched by something introducing itself, having released his two captives, as a “TERRIBLE BEAST

In response to Billy’s inquiry concerning their capture, said beast informs her that he’s on the lookout for unusual ingredients for his terrible soup. Seemingly he’s already found quite a few on his list.

Quick thinking combined with a few deft digs among her curls serves to bring about the substitution of some of the listed ingredients and, despite a sudden attack of terrible tummy rumbles on the part of the beast that serves to further his determination,

the consequent release of Billy’s woodland pals.

However, hunger-induced anger notwithstanding, the Beast is determined to secure the most important ingredient of all for his concoction.

Can the sassy young miss save the day one more time? Or, will it be a satisfying ending for the Beast.

I will reveal that its certainly a case of ‘yum yum!’ but to find out whose hunger is sated, you’ll have to bag a copy of this delicious offering from your local bookshop.

Absolutely brilliant for reading aloud to large groups of listeners who will relish not only the story but joining in with noisy rumbles, hellos and more. If my experience is anything to go by, this book is sure to be a much requested story time offering. Both words and illustrations are absolute delight: whoever would have thought a mass of curls could be such a boon.

Almost Anything

Almost Anything
Sophy Henn
Puffin Books

Sophy Henn has already created some wonderful characters; Pom Pom, Bear and Edie immediately spring to mind and now there’s another; meet George.
On this particular day, his fellow forest dwellers are all busy enjoying themselves in one way or another; not so George who sits doing nothing.
The little rabbit seems to be completely lacking in self-belief. “I can’t …” is his response to offers from his friends to join them in their activities.

Along comes Bear, very old and very wise. She produces a newspaper from which she fashions a hat. Telling George that it has magical powers, she persuades him to give it a go and see what happens.

Slowly, slowly the ‘magic’ starts to take effect and it’s not too long before George is roller skating, which he follows by dancing to the beat, a bit of painting, some reading and much more besides. In short, George is a very busy bunny indeed, so busy that he fails to notice that his hat is no longer on his head. Suddenly …

Fortunately Bear is close at hand with an explanation of where the magic is really coming from …

As a teacher I’ve always told children that there’s no such word as ‘can’t’ when it comes to their learning and now here’s this wonderful new story from an author who really gets to the heart of how young children think .
Almost Anything is such an empowering book both for youngsters who lack self-belief and all those adults who do everything they can to offer encouragement and support to them when it comes to giving it a go.
Risk taking isn’t easy for everyone but this is a cracking book to help those who find it a challenge.

As always Sophy’s matt illustrations executed in a gorgeous muted colour palette, have just the right degree of gentle humour and the animals’ body language is quite brilliant. Look out for Badger, a truly stylish skittle player, and those hedgehog dancers sporting head bands and leg warmers are just adorable.

If this hasn’t convinced you that this is a must buy picture book then I’ll eat my ‘Almost Anything’ magic hat with its wrap-around instructions for making, kindly supplied by Puffin Books.

Hide and Seek

Hide and Seek
Anthony Browne
Doubleday

There are search and find picture books aplenty and then there is Anthony Browne’s game of Hide and Seek, which is in an altogether different class: a class of its own. And it’s actually Anthony Browne’s 50th picture book of his career.
Herein the search is for a missing dog, Goldie, belonging to sister and brother, Poppy and Cy, or rather it isn’t. The search is actually that of Poppy for her brother in the game of hide-and-seek they decide to play in the woods as a distraction from their sadness over Goldie’s disappearance.
Cy duly hides himself; Poppy counts and then confidently commences her search.

(By now observant readers will have noticed some surreal additions to the children’s woodland surroundings.)
Seemingly Cy has hidden himself rather too well, for Poppy has trouble locating him thanks to several false leads. Her little brother meanwhile, is getting increasingly desperate for a wee, not to mention chilly and downright scared.

Is his mind beginning to conjure up some of the more disturbing images hidden in the woods as he hears the sound of something approaching?
There’s more than one surprise in the final spreads of this rich and absorbing story; and for readers perhaps, the most unexpected surprise is the open-ended finale …

But then Browne always poses questions and invites speculation way beyond the simple narrative of the written story.
(The last page lists eighteen objects the author has ‘hidden’ throughout the book.)
For me, having access to woodland is an essential part of being human. To enter a wood is to journey back in time: it sharpens the senses; we hear, see and smell differently and our imagination too is expanded. It puts us back in touch with our primeval selves. Anthony Browne invokes that same experience between the leaves of this spell-binding book.

Hortense and the Shadow

Hortense and the Shadow
Natalia and Lauren O’Hara
Puffin Books

Combining elements of dark and light, the O’Hara sisters’ debut picture book has a haunting, fairytale quality that will have a wide appeal.
A little girl Hortense, who lives in an ornate mansion deep in the woods, is a kind, brave, caring child. However there’s one thing she hates: her own shadow. It follows her no matter where she goes or what she does; and when night falls, it grows ‘tall and dark and crooked.’
She tries hiding her shadow … to no avail:

she and her shadow remain locked in mutual hatred.
Then one evening Hortense manages to escape from its clutches: she feels liberated, happy and safe; although just occasionally it feels like she’s being watched.

One black night some bandits arrive and it seems all is lost; but then Hortense’s shadow appears and saves her.

That’s when the girl realises that, rather than being something to hate, her shadow is a part of what she is, ‘sometimes dark, cross, strange, silly, jagged or blue,‘ – the perfect ending for this highly original, allegorical fairytale.
Natalia O’Hara’s lyrical prose and Lauren’s delicate, muted illustrations, sometimes ornate, sometimes stark and looming, together make for a multi-layered story to have you tingling with delight. Absolutely beautiful.