Lupita Nyong’o and Vashti Harrison
Puffin Books

You’ll surely be awed by the sheer beauty of the illustrations in this wonderful book.

It tells of young Sulwe (her name means star in the Kenyan Luo language) who was ‘born the colour of midnight.’ Her skin is darker than anyone else in her multi-hued family and when children at school call her names, Sulwe decides to lighten her skin. Nothing she tries, however, makes any difference,

and next morning her mother talks to her of her inner brightness and beauty; still though Sulwe isn’t convinced:

how can she be a star, she wonders.

That same night on a magical journey she discovers a fable wherein two sisters Night and Day get very different reactions from people, those towards Day are positive while Night receives negative ones. As a result she leaves the earth taking with her dreams and secrets, until her sister’s “we need you just the way you are” persuades her to return.

Now Sulwe understands that she too is “Dark and beautiful, bright and strong.’

This is a debut picture book for Kenyan actor/producer Lupita Nyong’o who based the story on her own childhood experience. She confronts the crucial and sensitive topic of skin colour head on, but in a way that young children can relate to. (I recall being extremely distressed when I first started teaching to find a 5- year old boy from Nigeria covering his arms with white chalk. He told me that he was trying to get his skin light like his friends. Nothing I said could persuade him that he was just perfect as he was.) Vashti Harrison wonderful illustrations are a celebration of all skin tones reinforcing Lupita’s message that everyone, like Sulwe, is uniquely beautiful, inside and out.

A must have book for all primary schools.

Don’t Mess with a Princess!

Don’t Mess with a Princess!
Rachel Valentine and Rebecca Bagley
Puffin Books

Far away in a beautiful and usually very happy kingdom atop a hill lives King Juno. Also residing in the palace are his three granddaughters Princess Thea, Princess Leaf and Princess Juno.

Now these three aren’t the type of princess who sits around waiting for a handsome prince to show up and sweep them off their feet, far from it.

So when having heard news of a mayhem creating Ogre, the King warns them to remain in their tower and absolutely not, on any account to mess with the Ogre, they quickly conceive a plan.

The sisters are thoroughly resourceful females and it isn’t long before they’re off towards the forest – an enchanted forest. But, unlike the knights sent to capture the Ogre, the three princesses know just how to get themselves safely through the angry trees and come out with, as Juno says, ‘fabulous hair’.

But can they cope with the webbed pit alive with large squirming spiders?

Fortunately Theo knows how to deal with the creatures and then all they need to do is cross the ravine with the broken bridge.

This time it’s Leaf who comes up trumps with some deft knots.

The important thing about all three princesses is that while not totally fearless, they’re always up for a challenge.

Once across and in Neatville they’re greeted with the sight of the Ogre charging off to trash yet another village. Off go the princesses in hot pursuit and finally they have the Ogre trussed up.

It’s then that they discover the reason their captive has been causing so much devastation; and being kind-hearted as well as clever, Thea, Leaf and Juno are ready and able to assist the Ogre in his search for his lost item.

If, like me you enjoy neo fairy tales then you’re certain to relish Rachel Valentine’s action-packed story of using your talents and not allowing others to make decisions for you.

Debut picture book illustrator Rebecca Valentine’s droll scenes of the three creative adventurers highlight the contrast between them and the supposedly brave knights of the kingdom. Make sure you spend time enjoying all the wonderful details on every spread.

How To Be Extraordinary

How To Be Extraordinary
Rashmi Sirdeshpande and Annabel Tempest
Puffin Books

What an inspirational selection of people Rashmi Sirdeshpande has chosen for her look at the lives of fifteen men and women from around the world, each of whom has made a truly impressive contribution to humanity. The balance of male and female inspirers is as equal as an odd number allows with one more male. I think if I were asked to compile a book like this, I’d want to include every one of these, who come from all walks of life.

There’s my all time hero, freedom fighter, Nelson Mandela, Britain’s first female spy, Polish born Krystyna Skarbek who once faced off German officers while in possession of a top-secret silk map, which she rolled and used as a headscarf. (Sadly, the extent of her bravery wasn’t recognised until after she died).

I’ve followed the career of Sir “Mo” Farah” from his early days in a secondary school just up the road from the primary one I taught at, through the time he trained at St Mary’s University, becoming elated as he won those Olympic gold medals, until now; his athletic skills and versatility are undoubtedly ‘superstordinary’.

It’s great to see the author/illustrator of much-loved children’s books, Judith Kerr, who with her parents fled Nazi Germany, arriving in London in 1936; and the unstoppable environmentalist, Sir David Attenborough, who continues to be an inspiration in his 90s as well as another environmentalist, Wangari Maathai from Kenya.

Readers (even adult ones) will be less likely to know more than the names of particle physics phenomenon, San Lan Wu; Aeham Ahmad, Syrian musician and ‘peace-builder’; and I must mention the phenomenal war surgeon David Nott who for more than 25 years has been taking unpaid leave to volunteer in places of conflict and natural disaster including Afghanistan, Sierra Leone and Syria.

The potted biographies are each allocated a double spread, which is packed but not overwhelmingly so, with information, quotes, and illustrations by Annabel Tempest.

One of the messages young readers will take from this book is that there’s a multitude of ways to be extraordinary. I watched two young children on TV the other night with their campaign against free throwaway plastic toys. I’m sure there are countless other youngsters out there whose imaginations these fifteen inspirational role models might ignite.

Add this one to family bookshelves and primary school class collections.

Unicorn Club / Ten Minutes to Bed Little Mermaid

Unicorn Club
Suzy Senior and Leire Martin
Little Tiger

It’s Saturday morning and young Amy is eagerly anticipating the inaugural meeting of her unicorn club, but as the time comes for the grand opening it seems as though there won’t be any takers. Upset, Amy rips down her poster and heads to her tree house.

There however, she receives a wonderful surprise and what’s more the creatures can’t wait for the promised crafting to commence.

They have to though, for long enough to relocate to Amy’s more spacious garage where she gets out all the resources.

Being creative gives those unicorns an appetite and one of their number demands the promised snacks, which are enthusiastically consumed in almost no time at all.

Fuelled up with cake, it’s time for the unicorns to show their dance moves but they’re all so groovy that Amy just cannot pick a winner; her chalks however are certainly the losers as they’re unknowingly squashed to pieces by the dancers.

Poor Amy: how will they create that club mural now? I wonder …
Illustrated in suitably garish hues and with scenes of unicorn frolics, this tale should certainly enchant the seemingly ever-growing numbers of young unicorn enthusiasts out there who will enjoy discovering how Amy’s nearly disastrous Saturday becomes the start of something magical.

Ten Minutes to Bed Little Mermaid
Rhiannon Fielding and Chris Chatterton
Puffin Books

In the third of their countdown to bedtime series, Rhiannon Fielding and Chris Chatterton take a dive down to the kingdom of merpeople and in particular little mermaid, Splash and her grandpa. It’s he who keeps count of the passing minutes as the playful Splash frolics with dolphins, dives beneath waves, bops with crabs, swims along with rainbow fish,

talks to turtles and has a scary encounter with a shark before pausing on a beach where she’s reminded of the time by a friendly passing whale that helps her on her way.

But will she make it in time before that final minute has gone …

The magical formula still holds good in this latest pre-bedtime fantasy that should ensure your little ones have sweet dreams in The Land of Nod. (The final map shows several more potential settings so I suspect this series will run and run.)

Who’s Going to Bed? / Somewhere Out There, Right Now

Who’s Going to Bed?
Abie Longstaff and Eve Coy
Puffin Books

‘The stars are out, / the moon is bright’; that means it’s bedtime for the pirates on the high seas, most of the animals in the jungle, the teddy bears in their cottage, the king and queen and their family of young knights.

There’s one mischievous baby though, who embarks on a very noisy adventure. His music making meandering arouses all those would-be slumberers,

who with the infant playing a kind of pied piper role are led a merry dance all the way to the beach where they come upon …

The trouble is, she’s an extremely tired little dragon and wants nothing more than to be allowed some peace and quiet so she can snuggle down for the night.

Now it’s time for that cheeky toddler to take control of the situation. With a single “SHHHH!” he sets in motion a concatenation of actions that see the baby dragon safely tucked up in her bed.

The efforts of his helpers however have brought on a desire for sleep in all the revellers, not least the instigator of the fun; and so finally the little babe is transported all the way home …

to bed. Goodnight and sweet dreams.

An enchantingly playful bedtime story told through Abie’s carefully measured text and Eve’s moonlit scenes of the nocturnal high jinks. I love her colour palette and the way she brings out the inherent gentle humour of a tale that’s a terrific one to share with little ones before bed. (I suggest any musical instruments are tucked right away first though – just in case …)

Somewhere Out There, Right Now
Gemma Wells
Ragged Bears

This softly spoken picture book connects young listeners to the natural world outside while at the same time helping them to find calm within as they wind down for bedtime.

Somewhere in the darkness a monkey takes cover from the heavy rain, baby beetles are buried beneath the earth,

birds come in to roost, there’s a fox out in a city street – perhaps seeking shelter or food – and waves gently lap a moonlit beach; there are kittens snuggling up to their mother.

All these peaceful scenes help to induce a sense of inner calm as the body slows, safe in the knowledge that the beloved listener to the gentle narrative is in a safe, nurturing place and all is well.

Gemma Wells’ affinity for nature is reflected in her bold, digitally worked scenes of the animals, the adult and child looking outwards.

A lovely book for parents and carers to share with the very young just before bed.

Look Up!

Look Up!
Nathan Bryon and Dapo Adeola

Young Rocket, the narrator of the story and an aspiring astronaut is for ever looking upwards; her head’s ‘always floating in the clouds’ her mother tells her.

Inspired by Mae Jemison, the first African-American woman in space, the little girl has two missions, the longer term space-travelling one and one much more immediate.

She is determined to get her older brother Jamal who is charged with taking her to the park to see the meteor shower, to stop staring at his mobile and direct his gaze upwards to view the spectacle.

He though, isn’t the only one of the town’s screen-obsessed characters; but despite this, Rocket wants everyone to join her in viewing the phoenix meteor shower that night at the park.
As she prepares, the girl shares with readers facts about the cause of meteor showers, the size and composition of meteors and when best to view a shower.

As portrayed in Dapo Adeola’s splendid digital illustrations, the main character is a real personality sporting funky star-stud earrings, orange space suit, and so excited about the prospect of the meteor shower that she is able to enthuse the entire neighbourhood – even finally her brother; while Nathan Byron’s story interweaves Rocket’s enthusiasm for all things space with the tension within her family fuelled by the sibling relations.

But will the townsfolk ever get to see that promised spectacle? It’s certainly a long wait …

A wonderfully uplifting celebration of STEM, especially space topics, as well as a timely reminder that setting aside screens facilitates one’s reaching for the stars and achieving one’s ambitions.

Hair Love

Hair Love
Matthew A.Cherry and Vashti Harrison
Puffin Books

‘A celebration of daddies and daughters everywhere’ says a line on the cover of this book but it’s much more than that. It’s also a celebration of individuality, perseverance, collaboration, and a loving family.

Young Zuri’s hair is a mass of curls; her dad calls it beautiful and this makes the little girl proud. It lets her be herself as it ‘kinks, coils and curls every which way’, no matter if she feels like being a princess or a superhero.

On this particular day though, Zuri needs a very special hairstyle but she knows her Daddy is particularly tired after having undertaken the whole responsibility for her care. Deciding he needs a break, the child allows him some extra sleep while she investigates styles on a tablet. Her good intentions however are thwarted;

he’s woken up and ready and willing to assist.

Dad tackles the job confidently but comes up with a series of hairstyles that just don’t work for Zuri, as we see in Vashti Harrison’s splendidly expressive digital illustrations and hear through debut author Matthew Cherry’s apt narrative,

until the dutiful dad pulls a bobble hat down over her eyes.

Zuri’s “We can do better than that” response however sees the two working together, she providing encouragement and an on-screen lesson, he collecting the tools and developing his artistry until finally … Success! ‘Funky puff buns’ that satisfy everyone …

Our little girl is ready just in the nick of time for a very important ‘welcome home’ celebration.

Just right for an early years storytime and for family sharing, this is a smashing book that knocks gender stereotypes out of the window as well as reinforcing the ‘be proud of who you are’ message.