Meet the Artist: Sophie Taeuber-Arp / Great Lives in Graphics: Frida Kahlo

Meet the Artist: Sophie Taeuber-Arp
Zoé Whitley and Lesley Barnes
Tate Publishing

In this, the latest in the Tate Meet the Artist series readers visit the vivid world of Sophie Taeuber-Arp.

As well as being an abstract artist, she was a designer, puppet-maker, dancer, architect and magazine editor whose husband once compared her to an expert bricklayer on account of ‘the way she brilliantly put together different coloured squares and rectangles to make her paintings.’ Readers are invited to experiment in their own way with this idea, imagining being a creative bricklayer and making a design on the page opposite one of the artist’s works.

That is just one of the opportunities children are offered as they read about the artist’s life and are introduced to her key themes and works of art. Inspired by these, youngsters can also create a candle holder, design a magazine cover for a new publication, experiment with puppet making or funky costume design and more. Indeed an entire class might like to try creating and moving to sound poems in the fashion of the Dada movement of which Taeuber-Arp was a part.

Both engaging and lots of fun, try offering this book to a child from around six. (The activities don’t require any materials not likely to be found at home or youngsters could suggest their own alternatives if the odd thing is not readily available.)

Great Lives in Graphics: Frida Kahlo
Button Books

New in the publisher’s infographics series for KS2 readers, this features one of the world’s most famous artists.

Born in Mexico City, Frida spent her childhood in a bright blue house built by her father where she grew up with three sisters. While she was very young the Mexican Revolution broke out; her father couldn’t get much work so her family were forced both to sell their furniture and to rent out rooms in the blue house so they could afford to live.

Indeed many sad things happened in Frida’s life. At age six she caught polio, spending months in bed, after which time her right leg became very thin and her foot stopped growing.

This didn’t stop her gaining admission to Mexico’s prestigious school where she and eight friends formed a clique known as Los Cachuchas. Members got up to all kinds of mischief including stealing food from famous artist, Diego Rivera. Another tragedy happened when Frida was eighteen. A bus she was travelling on was hit by a tram, shattering the bus and severely injuring Frida who was again stuck in bed for months.

It was during that time she began to draw; her mother had a special easel made that Frida could use from a lying position; and she started painting self-portraits. It’s partly on account of this, we read, that most of her paintings are quite small.

From her schooldays Frida had a crush on Diego and they met again two years after her accident. Despite the twenty year age gap the two fell in love, married and had a stormy relationship, divorcing and remarrying a year or so later.

If little else, most people know of Frida’s flamboyant style of dressing and adorning herself, as well as her love of nature which often features symbolically in the paintings.

All this and more is included in this enticing book. Youngsters interested in art/artists and those studying Frida Kahlo in primary school especially, will want to get hold of a copy.

Mr Tiger

Mr Tiger
Davide Cali and Miguel Tanco
Tate Publishing

With his world-famous moves – the head smash, the pain-in-the-neck clutch, fatal hug and his trademark Leap of the Tiger – wrestler, Mr Tiger is the strongest in the world.
He’s defeated Blackclaw (his greatest rival), Boogeyman, Constrictor and Blob, all formidable opponents in the ring.

Out of the ring however, it’s an entirely different matter. Mr T. is enormously shy and entirely lacking in friends other than his canine pal, Fifi.

Of late though, Mr Tiger has become enamoured with Lily but on account of his extreme reserve, he just can’t summon the courage to speak to her; even his rivals have noticed he seems a tad less fearsome than usual.

As he sits pondering his plight and considering how he might make some sort of approach, a certain fluffy friend makes a move. 

Could that lead to our masked wrestler making the most gigantic leap of his entire life …

Inspired by the Mexican sport/art form lucha libre, this entertaining book with Miguel Tanco’s quirky illustrations and Davide Cali’s reporter style text will go down especially well with those who like something out of the ordinary when it comes to picture books.

A Cat About Town

A Cat About Town
Lèa Decan
Tate Publishing

‘A cat about town’ the feline narrator of this book, surely is. Owned by Lisa, the moggy is seldom at home (one day a week to be precise); the rest of the time there’s a busy schedule in operation.

Mondays are taken up by visiting writer and intellectual, Sebastian; Tuesdays are spent downstairs mainly on Mina’s balcony crammed with plants that look and smell amazing.

Come Wednesday on the dot of twelve noon, it’s a trip to Granny Yvonne whose granddaughter visits for lunch – and it’s truly delicious, not to mention, filling.

Thursdays are for artist Maud and a bit of culture, albeit in rather messy surroundings. Apparently our narrator is the favourite subject of this famous creative woman.
Musicians of the local string quartet gather on Fridays so it’s culture of a different kind on that day and our feline visitor has the most comfortable seat in the house.

On Saturdays it’s a case of a double date: Amélie receives a visit from her boyfriend; and the narrator meets the elegant Capucine with her alluring eyes and the two cats take a wander through the city streets.

Sunday though is home and Lisa’s day; it’s she after all’s said and done, who ‘takes care of me’.

Cat lovers especially, will relish this playful, first-feline narration and the alluring, gorgeously colourful scenes of the abodes in which Lisa’s cat spends most of his days. What about the nights, one wonders …

Hard Times for Unicorn

Hard Times for Unicorn
Mickaël El Fathi and Charlotte Molas
Tate Publishing

Unicorns are all the rage with young children nowadays but how many have wondered what happened to the very last of them. Here’s an absolutely absurd story that offers a possible explanation: it begins in a forest in Siberia. There a young explorer captures this one-horned rarity but rather than keeping her safe, the very next day the hunter loses her to a fisherman in a card game.

A failure at fishing, the fisherman sells her to a knight who quickly passes her on to an athlete. The partnership of pole vaulter and unicorn is highly successful and the two become world famous.

A robber sees how useful the creature might be and so his gain is the athlete’s loss but before many weeks have passed, the police catch the guy in action, seize the ‘safe-opener’ and leave her in the circus and she becomes a star act … until the circus closes and the creature changes hands again … and again …

until eventually the kind narrator of this story decides that the long-suffering unicorn deserves a happy ending …

To call this book quirky is probably an understatement; it’s decidedly different from the usual sparkly unicorn kind of tale. With its twists and turns this one sees the creature serving purposes ranging from curious to practical, but always innovative. It’s likely to appeal to divergent thinkers rather than lovers of fairytale magic.

The Great Paint

The Great Paint
Alex Willmore
Tate Publishing

Meet Frog, he’s an artist and hence tends to see things somewhat differently. He finds his own swamp dull and uninspiring, and so decides to seek some stimuli elsewhere. With materials amassed,

he sets out, first stop Bear’s cave.

Out come those brushes and colours and he sets to work. The trouble is, not everyone wants their place of residence adorned by a Banksy style work of art; certainly not Bear. Far from loving it, he’s horrified and sends Frog packing.

Next on the receiving end of Frog’s creativity is Snake – literally – and he is not impressed.

Undaunted, Frog continues his journey using his talent at every opportunity, his excitement mounting at each new piece of art.

However one animal’s ‘wonderful’ is the other animals’ ‘real mess’ as Moose informs him in no uncertain terms.

Feeling totally misunderstood Frog beats a grumpy retreat but then on pausing for a spot of thinking, he suddenly comes up with another terrific idea.

Could this be his most creative yet? Moreover will his friends appreciate his efforts this time? …

I absolutely love the playfulness in Alex Willmore’s illustrations: how she manages to get so much personality into that froggy character when he looks little more than a finger print, is amazing. The eyes say it all with every one of the cast in this hugely enjoyable tale of misplaced creativity.

Why? / It Isn’t Rude to be Nude

Billy Dunne and Rhys Jeffreys
Maverick Publishing

Young children are innately curious about the world around them, always asking questions and wanting to discover new things. So it is here with the girl who is out walking with her dad when he points out a rainbow in the sky saying, “You get them when the rain has passed and the sunshine comes instead.”
“Why?” comes the girl’s softly spoken response. This precipitates a sequence of further questions “Why?” followed by explanations from Dad who speaks first of colours in a light beam being split when they pass through rainy weather;

then the fact that blue light bends a little more than red.
The next “Why” invokes an explanation of this fact. The girl’s whys intensify and Dad moves on to more sophisticated talk. After which the poor fellow is feeling somewhat frazzled and in need of a rest. But still comes another “Why?”

What the guy says in response gets right to the crux of the complex matter but story spoiler I won’t be, so I’ll leave you to wonder or ponder upon this – unless of course you’ve sufficient knowledge of physics to answer for yourself. Whatever the case, his daughter is delighted, and all ends satisfactorily – just about!
Just right for youngsters eager to find out about their world (rainbows in particular) and their weary adult responders.

Billy Dunne’s rhyming narrative making accessible some tricky science, is easy to read aloud (great final throwaway comment from the daughter) and is well complemented by Rhys Jefferys’ illustrations. I love the way he shows the changing expressions of the father as he does his utmost to keep up with and ahead of, his daughter’s “Why”s and his wordless spread showing ‘The complex composition of the photon field’ is a complete contrast to the relatively spare previous ones.

It Isn’t Rude to be Nude
Rosie Haine
Tate Publishing

Open this debut book of Rosie Haines and almost immediately you’re faced with this spread with bums

after which we see nipples (normal things), ‘willies’ (not silly) and vulvas. Thereafter come changes to some parts – boobs might grow, and hair (don’t be scared).
On view too are bodies of all kinds and a variety of body colours and markings

as well as hair (or lack of it). We’re shown people whose bodies stand, sit, or leap and dance, and sometimes strut across the spreads

all with one object in mind – to promote body positivity and to show how bodies change over time as we grow and get older.

Children for the most part do have a positive and healthy attitude to nudity; it’s often the attitudes of adults that trigger those feelings of shame about the naked form and being naked. So, it’s three rousing cheers for Rosie’s book illustrated with a wonderfully warm colour palette and a pleasing fluidity of line.

Everything is Mine

Everything is Mine
Andrea D’Aquino
Tate Publishing

Meet Marcello Von Cauliflower Bonaparte Jackson, usually called Marcello by friends. He is, so he says, kind, clever and very loyal. There’s one snag however, out narrator pooch considers that everything belongs to him – yes everything.

A pink fluffy slipper? Definitely his – one’s surely enough for his ‘mum’. The pork chop on that plate? His assuredly (there’s no label saying it’s Leo’s after all.)

Ditto Squirrel’s acorn and even that tree. That’s sticks for the rest of Marcello’s life sorted. Indeed, the whole park is his so it’s his rules that must be followed.

So what about the entire universe? You guessed: that’s Marcello’s too. It’s on his ‘my stuff’ list.

It looks as though Marcello and his acquisitive nature are totally out of control.

Is there any chance that Leo might, just might show him what truly matters?

Perhaps owning ever more things isn’t really THE most important thing in life after all. This is definitely something that so many of us have worked out for ourselves during the on-going pandemic. Whether this fun story with its vital message was conceived pre-covid I’m not sure, but it’s certainly a timely one. The funky collage illustrations are superb, brilliantly expressive and I love the various footnotes – oops sorry paw notes – asides and comments by the bit part players. Great endpapers too.

The Museum of Me / Like A Giant

Here are two picture books kindly sent for review by Tate Publishing:

The Museum of Me
Emma Lewis

‘Everyone says I’m going to love the museums,’ so says the little girl narrator in this delightfully quirky book as we accompany her on a journey wherein she travels by bus, to a variety of museums, showing us what they are, and what each has to offer.

Therein she finds all manner of objects that fascinate her such as ancient toys very similar to her own, pottery,

strange birds and giant bugs, contemporary artworks and lots more besides.

Then there are museums outdoors too, sometimes in gardens,

and our narrator even contemplates the possibilities of a museum in space.
Finally, she takes us to see The Museum of Me – her very own collection of favourite things.
Now that’s a fantastic starting point, once you’ve shared with youngsters this smashing look at the delights that museums have to offer. I love the distinctive, collage style illustrations that imbue the entire book with a sense of the importance of individual responses to museums, indeed to the whole of life.

Why not suggest children create and curate their own personal museums featuring items from their lives and experiences? Such an activity offers both a personal response and a demonstration of the way in which museums the world over have often been created out of the lives and experiences of ordinary as well as extraordinary people. For now I’m going to start thinking of items for my museum of me, restricting it to (desert island discs style) ten.

Like A Giant
Marc Daniau and Yvan Duque

Take a giant – just awoken, a city child – ready and waiting, and a journey; those are the key elements of this picture book that is a wonderful celebration of the power of childhood imagination. Said journey takes the adventurers across the ocean, then moving at high speed beside a railway track, on up towards a wonderful mountainous region abundantly green where it’s time to slow down, stop and relish the serenity of the scene spreading out before them.

Then comes a soaring ride through the skies – snow softly falling – to see deserts, islands, hills and valleys, lakes and more. There’s a place to sate the travellers’ hunger, wonderous verdant gardens and woodlands to enchant and delight.

They’ll travel through all kinds of weather

and through a whole day and night, but though that entire trip has lasted just a short time, it has been an unforgettable, life-enhancing experience for the hero large and the hero small.

With incredibly powerful scenes by Yvan Duque and a travelogue commentary in the imagination of a small child by Marc Daniau, this is an awe-inspiring book to share slowly and meditatively, perhaps at bedtime.

Count On Me

Count On Me
Miguel Tanco
Tate Publishing

The little girl in this story wherein every one of her family members has a passion, struggles to find hers – at first that is. Her dad loves to paint, her mum loves entomology, her brother is a budding musician but none of these find favour with our young narrator.
Nor do those activities she tries – dancing, cooking, singing or sports, for instance:

not a single one arouses passion in her, worthy though they might be.

All else has failed but what about maths? Now there’s something that really fuels her enthusiasm – a passion at last! Yes maths is amazing

and it’s everywhere once you start looking: there’s an abundance of geometric shapes in the playground, at the lake,

in the block buildings she constructs. There are perfect curves to be discovered; number conundrums to solve over a family meal; then there’s symmetry in making a paper plane, as well as the excitement of launching and tracking its trajectory once complete.

As the girl reminds us, being passionate about maths can be strange to some people – hard to comprehend in fact – but as she says in conclusion, ‘ there are infinite ways to see the world … And maths is one of them.’
Seeing the world through the lens of a mathematical mind can most certainly seem well-nigh incomprehensible. It certainly was to this reviewer whose amazing dad (a Cambridge mathematician), maths puzzle solver extraordinaire, and for whom maths was inherent in his job, failed to understand how it was my least favourite subject at secondary school, and one I couldn’t wait to drop after O-level.

It’s great for those with a maths aversion as well as to demonstrate the power and importance of passions, whatever they are. I love the way in which Tanco shows readers the world through that mathematic lens, illustrating so many different concepts in his watercolour spreads of everyday activities, while also introducing mathematical vocabulary in the girl’s narrative. I love too the final ‘My Maths’ notebook that explains and illustrates the mathematical terms and concepts that are part and parcel of the story. Perhaps if I’d had this gem of a picture book as a child who knows …

The Big Trip

The Big Trip
Alex Willmore
Tate Publishing

In these days of physical distancing, self important Bear would most definitely be in serious trouble from the powers that be.

Said creature was anything but a respecter of personal space,  showing no concern for other animals as he perambulated around the forest barging and trampling his way wherever he chose to go.

One day while out strutting his stuff as usual he encounters Moose blocking his path. Unlike the smaller creatures, Moose stands his ground

forcing the arrogant Bear to divert from his chosen way and causing him to take an extremely uncomfortable downhill tumble … YEOUCH! … and land unceremoniously in stinky subterranean surroundings.

Pride most definitely came before a fall in Bear’s case.

Talk about humiliation: the other animals are hugely amused but then Moose speaks out.

Perhaps it’s time for every one to pull together, but will that self-aggrandising Bear finally come to see the error of his ways and start to become a bit more community minded?

Alex’s modern cautionary tale is a timely reminder of the power of co-operation especially now when it seems to be the only way forward.

The Weed

The Weed
Quentin Blake
Tate Publishing

When the Meadowsweet family find themselves at the bottom of a huge crack that’s formed in the earth they decide to set free their mynah bird Octavia.

This proves to be a wise move for it’s not long before she’s back with a seed.

This seed becomes their means of escape from a very tricky situation as little by little then ever more rapidly it grows towards the earth’s surface eventually bursting through.

Up, up, up climb the Meadowsweets through the increasingly lush foliage working up an appetite in so doing. “I hope there’s something left to eat when we get up there. I’m starving,” comments Mr Meadowsweet.

Happily though, they don’t have to wait that long, for the profligate plant puts forth fruits aplenty, as well as foliage, as Mrs Meadowsweet discovers tucking in enthusiastically; but in her eagerness she slips and falls.

Fortuitously, a large comfy leaf cushions her fall and the tendrils of the remarkable plant reunite her with the rest of her family.

The journey of people and plant to the surface is finally accomplished and at the surface the luxuriant and verdant world of a garden of Eden surrounds them after their Jack and the Beanstalk style climb.

We probably all feel like we’re at the bottom of a deep hole just now and we are all looking forward to those green shoots of recovery. So, this fable could be read as a message of hope during these difficult times. Remarkable as its creator Quentin Blake is though, he is not an oracle and one suspects he was merely creating a fun and fantastical story for us all to enjoy.

The Extraordinary Gardener / The Five of Us / Incredible You

Celebrating the paperback editions of 3 Tate Publishing titles:somehow they all speak a similar message to us in this current crisis:

The Extraordinary Gardener
Sam Boughton

Wildly imaginative, Joe lives in an ordinary apartment in an ordinary city but in his inner world, plants flourish growing taller than skyscrapers and wondrous animals abound.
Then thanks to reading one night in bed, a seed of an idea is planted in his mind; it’s colourful, aromatic and joyful sounding. The following morning he sets about transforming that idea into reality, starting with an apple seed and some basic tools.

His idea seems to take ages and ages, almost forever; so much so that Joe forgets his seed and returns to imagining colour into his grey existence. But then one daydreaming day Joe spies something outside, colourful and REAL!

Tender care and new seedlings turn that single tree into a stunningly beautiful garden; a garden admired by his neighbours and that ignites his imagination once again.

More seed gathering ensues and gradually the entire neighbourhood is totally transformed into a riot of colour. Just the kind of awesome moment we all need in our lives just now, and the message too about reaching out to neighbours and strangers.

The more you look at this book, the more you see – the detail is awesome; and Sam Broughton’s way of using greyness and gradually bringing more and more colour into her scenes is wonderful, culminating in a glorious fold-out.

Time to get yourself some seeds, go into your garden (or failing that grab some containers), and begin growing something amazing …

The Five of Us
Quentin Blake

This is an enormously powerful story about how five friends, set out for a picnic into the countryside, in a big yellow bus driven by Big Eddie. Now what we’re told about the five is that each of them has a special, amazing ability: Angie can see things miles away; Ollie’s hearing is supersensitive; Simona and Mario are extraordinarily strong and as for Eric – he’s not yet aware of his superpower, but of that  … more later.

During the picnic Eddie starts feeling “ a bit peculiar’ and suddenly the children have an emergency on their hands. Now more than ever they need to work together

but which of them is going to end up saving the day – or will it be a wonderful collective problem-solving effort.

Quentin Blake’s genius shines forth in every way in this book; his characters are wonderfully portrayed and he leaves plenty of space for readers to bring their own interpretations to the story, though one thing is absolutely clear: do whatever you can – a crisis situation can bring out the most awesome talents in every single one of us.
Written 6 years ago, this is just as timely now – or perhaps even more so.

Incredible You
Rhys Brisenden and Nathan Reed

We all have a bad day from time to time and perhaps like the boy protagonist in this book, on especially bad ones, we might wish to be someone or something else.

This boy however, having run through the gamut of ordinary

and less ordinary animals and the possibilities offered by so being, comes back round to the senses that he himself possesses and the wonderful wealth of possibilities these can generate.

In short everyone is uniquely AMAZING!

Amazing too is the combination of Rhys Brisenden’s rhyming text and Nathan Reed’s colourful scenes of upbeat characters, animal and human, demonstrating the multitude of ways of being yourself.

Hours of visual stimulus and an abundance of potential talk herein.

How the Stars Came to Be

How the Stars Came to Be
Poonam Mistry
Tate Publishing

I’ve loved Poonam’s art since I saw her first collaboration with Chitra Soundar, so was totally thrilled to learn of her new solo picture book.

Perhaps like most people you’ve wondered how the stars came to be in the sky and this story offers one possibility.

Way back in time the only light came from the sun and the moon.

A fisherman’s daughter loved feeling the Sun’s rays on her during the daytime while at night she would lie in her bed thinking of her father on his boat out at sea with only the light of the Moon to guide him.

That’s fine, other than for the few nights every month there’s no visible Moon at all, leaving the fisherman to work in total darkness. This troubles the Girl so much that one morning the Sun discovers her shedding tears and asks what’s upsetting her.

On hearing the girl’s concern and pondering upon it, the Sun takes one if its golden rays and throws it down to earth where it breaks into a million glowing fragments.

“Gather together all the shining pieces,” the Sun tells the Girl,  “…Then tonight when I drop beneath the horizon … place each of them into the sky. … We will call them stars.”

The Girl does as she’s bid, naming the brightest Polaris; then continues her task creating wonderful images with her positioning of the pieces.

Week after week she works on her skyscape but months later her bag still seems full of stars. How will she ever complete her work?

Meanwhile a Monkey has been watching the Girl and while she’s distracted he descends, seizes the bag and dashes back up into the tree.

A tussle follows,

and out of the bag tumble all the remaining stars, spoiling the work of the Fisherman’s daughter.

Or perhaps not; for sometimes accidents have happy outcomes …

This is an incredibly beautiful book – let’s call it a neo pourquoi tale – where every spread stuns you with its awesomeness. Poonam’s art is inspired by her love of nature, and her gorgeous, intricately patterned work, is based on Indian designs and colours that I as a frequent visitor to India appreciate all the more.

I wish I could show you every single illustration but for that you’ll have to get hold of a copy for yourself.