The Night Before Christmas in Wonderland / The Night Before Christmas

The Night Before Christmas in Wonderland
Carys Bexington and Kate Hindley
Macmillan Children’s Books

Demonstrating the true meaning of Christmas, this is a marvellous mix up of two classics– Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and Clement Clarke Moore’s A Visit from St. Nicholas.

It begins thus: ‘Twas the night before Christmas, a dark snowy night / When St Nick and his reindeer were just taking flight.’

Debut picture book author, Carys Bexington manages to sustain the jaunty rhyme unfalteringly throughout the tale. Therein she gives Santa aka St. Nick a turn to go adventuring down the rabbit hole when he responds to the plea of the Princess of Hearts who sends a letter begging for a Christmas present after her parents have said no.

Having made their way down the royal chimney St. Nick plus reindeer come upon a decidedly unseasonal scene and disturb the Queen of Hearts. She, we learn hates Christmas because as a little princess, her Dear Santa letter missed the last post on account of the White rabbit’s tardiness and so she was presentless.

As a consequence, presents, along with tinsel, mince pies and good cheer are all banned.

Now though, at long last, it’s time to deliver that gift to the erstwhile little princess.

Can St. Nick succeed in restoring the ‘Happy’ into Christmas? Perhaps, but only if her royal grumpiness, the Queen of Hearts responds positively to Rudolph’s assertion, that alluded to at the start of this review.

A full cast that includes the Cheshire Cat and the Mad Hatter, are depicted in Kate Hindley’s absolutely priceless scenes of seasonal mayhem and festive frolics, each of which is bursting with delicious details and Kate’s own brand of brilliance.

The Night Before Christmas
Clement C. Moore and Roger Duvoisin
Scallywag Press

If you are looking for a version of the classic Clement Clarke Moore seasonal poem this year then I’d wholeheartedly recommend this superbly designed one first published in 1954.

Its tall, slim shape and size is perfect chimney shaped design and here we follow Santa – portly and with an enormous beard – as he alights on the rooftop and slides down the chimney of the narrator’s residence (in how many homes would that be possible nowadays?).

Observant readers who are familiar with Duvoisin’s creation for Louise Fatio’s The Happy Lion will spot the striking resemblance of one of the soft toys left as a gift, to said lion.

Retro brilliance this!

A Gallery of Cats

A Gallery of Cats
Ruth Brown
Scallywag Press

Tom who is visiting an art gallery with his granny wanders off into a side room where something quite amazing happens.

As he stands reading a label beside the Jackson exhibit, out of the painting leaps a cat. Tom follows it.

Seemingly there’s been a feline invasion for from almost a dozen works of art that closely resemble famous masterpieces, there appear in turn as Tom pauses to read the labels to his guide Jackson, cats named Gustav, Piet, Frida, René, Vincent, Maukie & Cornelis, Kats,

Henri, Edvard,

William and Samuel.

Eventually with a bevy of assorted cats at his feet Tom turns a corner and there before him is the famous Rousseau-like tiger.

At the sight of this the other felines turn tail and dash back to their own paintings; not Jackson though; he at least waits to bid farewell to the boy while his gran looks at the notice announcing a new exhibition; no prizes for guessing what the topic is.

Cleverly conceived and superbly executed in her own painterly style, Ruth Brown presents a playful introduction to the work of thirteen world famous artists. Cat lovers and primary teachers in particular will love this novel way of bringing their work to life for children who have yet to see the real pictures.

Life on Mars

Life On Mars
Jon Agee
Scallywag Press

A lone astronaut – a little one – arrives on Mars determined to find life. ‘Everybody thinks I’m crazy. Nobody believes there is life on Mars. But I do.’ is what he tells readers.
What he sees though as he wanders around the dark, cold Martian landscape clutching his box of chocolate cupcakes (an offering for any alien he might encounter), is a planet seemingly devoid of life.

The visitor starts to have doubts about finding any sort of life form, while unbeknown to him there’s a large creature following not far behind keeping a close watch on the explorer.

Having abandoned his box of goodies, the disillusioned little human decides to return to his spaceship. But where is it?
Lost he might be, but his search yields something exciting …

along with his box of cupcakes.
(I held my breath when I saw that the little astronaut had picked that yellow flower; I hope it isn’t the only one on the entire planet.)

Now, flower and box in hand, he is all the more determined to locate his spaceship, which he does by scaling the ‘err’ mountain.

Then, mission accomplished, when he’s inside and homeward bound, it’s the perfect time to tuck in to one of those yummy chocolately confections …

Witty, ironic, thought-provoking and with that surprise ending, Agee’s offering, with his stark Martian scenery, is eminently re-readable. Children love to be in the know about stories and as they listen to the young astronaut’s earnest narration, they’ll be hard put to resist yelling “he’s behind you”.

We Found a Seed

We Found A Seed
Rob Ramsden
Scallywag Press

In this follow up to I Saw a Bee, Rob Ramsden adds a female character.

While outside playing, the boy and girl find a seed. They put it in a box and use it in their play, dancing and singing to it;

but the seed doesn’t grow.

They ask the seed for advice, listen and wait for a response; and then they know. …

The seasons change – gusty autumn winds, icy wintry rain and then spring with its gentle warmth. The seed grows and grows and …

The friends are delighted but when autumn comes again the flower dies; that though isn’t the end for what lies scattered around is full of potential …

Next time the children will know what to do.

This simple look at a sunflower life cycle and the seasons is again pitch perfect for the very young. Rob’s rhythmic text is memorable while his illustrations show just how worthwhile and rewarding continuing contact with the natural world can be.

A small piece of brilliance.

The Rabbit Listened

The Rabbit Listened
Cori Doerrfeld
Scallywag Press

Something terrible happens to Taylor in Cori Doerrfeld’s story. It certainly appears devastating when a flock of birds swoops through, knocking down the complicated construction the small, momentarily proud, child has just built.

One after another various animals come along and attempt to help; but Taylor doesn’t want to talk, doesn’t feel like shouting,

nor remembering as the elephant suggests, certainly doesn’t want to laugh, pretend the event never happened or do any of the other things the creatures, from their own view point think might be supportive.

Eventually Taylor is left alone and that’s when a rabbit creeps up. The rabbit says not a word; it merely snuggles up beside Taylor, offering a listening ear and creating space until the little human is ready to respond to those pent-up emotions held within.

The author/illustrator too creates space, a lot of white space on the page for the story to unfold as Taylor moves from grief, to anger and finally, resolution.

Perfectly paced, seemingly simple but with plenty of space for deeper connections to be made where and when appropriate, this is a book for adults to share especially when there’s a child in need of emotional support who will process it in his/her own way, just like Taylor does.

Cori Doerrfeld’s elegant, empathetic illustrations perfectly orchestrate her wonderfully wise story that’s a must have for anyone who lives or works with young children.

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.

Umbrella

Umbrella
Elena Arevalo Melville
Scallywag Press

Imagine a world where everyone is kind and forgiving, and where anything is possible. How wonderful would that be. That is the world Elena Arevalo Melville creates in this uplifting story that begins one morning with Clara without anybody to play with in the park.

But then she comes upon an umbrella, albeit somewhat worn, but Clara picks it up and places it gently on a bench close by. To her surprise the umbrella thanks her and goes on to say, “Look inside me. Anything is possible!”

And so it is, for when she opens it up she finds herself face to face with a splendid playmate. Now for Clara at least, the park is quite simply perfect as it had been to near neighbour, old Mr Roberts when he was a boy.

But from his wheel chair he can only look up towards those tasty-looking apples in the tree and think, ‘if only’. Not for long though for Clara is there telling him ‘anything is possible’, with the umbrella urging him, “Look inside me.”

Before long, not only has Mr Roberts got an umbrella full of the yummy fruit, but he’s asking his helper to pick enough for everyone.

And so it goes on until the park is alive with magic and music courtesy of the butterfly band. Everyone joins the dance

except one rather unsavoury character watching from the side with his eyes firmly on that umbrella; a foxy gentleman with only one thing in mind – a very selfish thing.

Can that umbrella work its own special magic yet again and perhaps enable a state of perfection to pervade the entire park?

Debut author/illustrator Elena Arevalo Melville’s use of a minimal colour palette until the penultimate spread serves to make that illustration all the more perfect too. Her somewhat surreal tale of empathy, kindness and community is one to share and discuss at every opportunity.

Then I’d suggest asking listeners to make their own wishes. Perhaps they could write them down and drop them into a partially open umbrella safely secured in a strategic spot.