Cloud Forest

Cloud Forest
Victoria Turnbull
Frances Lincoln Children’s Books

This is an absolutely beautiful, gentle but powerful story of love and of loss.

Umpa’s garden is the young child narrator’s favourite place, filled as it is with flowers and fruit trees. Umpa shows his grandchild how to plant seeds and watch them grow. He also plants stories in her mind, stories of imagined worlds – wonderful new places they can travel to together; places that, fuelled by the imagination can stay with you forever.

Time passes; Umpa grows older

and eventually he dies.

His distraught grandchild grieves, “The clouds had swallowed me whole’ she tells us.

Then one day, she remembers: his legacy lives on …

and he will always be there in her heart and in her memories of those treasured experiences they shared together.

Books and stories have transformative powers: Victoria’s new book is a wonderful reminder of that, showing some of the myriad ways those powers can help to heal, to bond people together, as well as to fuel the imagination. The softness of the story is evoked in her beautiful pastel colour palette, her graceful lines and the fluidity of her images. Do spend time on every spread; there is so much to see and feel.

A book to share and to cherish.

Nell & the Circus of Dreams

Nell & the Circus of Dreams
Nell Gifford and Briony May Smith
Oxford University Press

Circuses hold a tremendous fascination for many children and so it is with young Nell although she doesn’t know it when the story begins. What she does know though is that she feels sad on account of her mother being ill and then, when she discovers a tiny chick in the farmyard, very happy.

Nell and the lost chick – she names it Rosebud – become almost inseparable.

One night Rosebud disappears from the end of her bed and when Nell wakes next morning her feathered friend is nowhere to be seen. Dashing outside she leaves the farmyard and heads through the still dewy meadows till she finds herself surrounded by enormous wooden wheels.

There’s an intoxicating aroma of coffee, toast and hedgerow flora, and she hears hammers striking metal. Lo and behold, she’s walked right into a circus.

Up goes the huge tent and Nell sees girls busy adding adornments inside and out. She helps and is invited into one of the wheeled homes where she joins a large family meal. She endeavours to communicate that she’s searching for her lost chick but suddenly the music starts and everyone rushes out and into the big tent.

Nell is mesmerised by the performances she sees …

but even better a wonderful surprise awaits her in the ring: there’s something feathery standing in a circle of light.
From then on, although sadly the circus has to depart, remembering doesn’t;

Nell carries the memories always in her heart and relives them in her own way.

Beautifully and movingly told by Nell, founder of Giffords Circus that has its home on the outskirts of Stroud, near to where I currently live much of the time, her words really capture the magic of all things wonderful about a circus community such as theirs.

I can think of nobody better than Briony to illustrate the story. Her jewel-like scenes are out-of-this-world wonderful, be they of Nell’s farmhouse home and yard, the temporary homes of the circus community or of the performance.

A must have picture book, this.

Out, Out, Away From Here

Out, Out, Away From Here
Rachel Woodworth and Sang Miao
Flying Eye Books

An exploration of emotions comes first hand from the red haired girl narrator of this picture book.

Sometimes she feels mad, sometimes she’s sad; on some days, ‘smiling-ear-to-ear GLAD’; on others ‘MAD SAD SMILING-EAR-TO-EAR GLAD.’ There are good and bad days, quiet ones and noisy ones. But on those ‘MAD SAD NOISY days’ she seeks solace in a place far off in the wild of her imagination.

That’s a place to watch the swishing, swooshing, rustling roaring trees with their whispery leaves, waving branches and grumbling trunks until both watched and watcher break into smiles and everything begins to change.

Finally it’s time to return, calm once more, to the everyday world of domestic reality.

Sang Miao’s superb illustrations show what is not said: there’s a baby sibling in the home that clearly puts the parents under strain at times. Here she uses dark silhouettes and dull hues …

in stark contrast to her richly coloured scenes of the narrator’s imaginary world, which are lush and fantastical with surreal images.

A fabulous book to start a primary classroom discussion on negative emotions – how they can affect us, and how we might respond to them.

Chalk Eagle

Chalk Eagle
Nazli Tahvili
Tiny Owl

The power of the imagination is crucial for so many reasons. I’ve spoken and written about its importance in education in many places and on numerous occasions, including from time to time, on this blog. Sadly however, the education policy writers in our government seem not to place much value upon it.

However, one never gives up on something so vital and it is wonderful to have Tiny Owl’s on-going championing of wordless books as one means of promoting the education of the imagination. Equally it was exciting to hear on a recent The Life Scientific programme, a woman mathematician, Eugenia Cheng, speaking about the importance of the imagination in maths.

This wordless picture book by Iranian artist Nazli Tahvili is the perfect vehicle to get the imagination soaring and for me the eagle in flight is a wonderful symbol of creativity unleashed.
A rooftop vantage point is just the place to broaden one’s horizons and make free with chalk on tiles, which is what the young protagonist does herein having watched an eagle flying overhead.

Boy and eagle join forces

and soar over town and country, sea and mountain in his imagination and in Nazli Tahvili’s screen-print illustrations.

The colours she has used are, so we’re told, influenced by the blue skies, and green rice fields that surround her northern Iranian home.

A book to open up and let your mind go free with child and eagle: in particular, I’d like to give it to a group of teachers or teachers in training and see where their discussions/imaginations fly.

The Stone Bird

The Stone Bird
Jenny McCartney and Patrick Benson
Andersen Press

Here’s a magical tale full of wonder and the power of the imagination.
It begins one hot summer’s day when Eliza discovers a smooth, egg-shaped stone in the sand and knows it’s something special. “It’s a heavy egg,” she tells her sceptical mother.
At bedtime the child places her treasure beside her on the bedside table and later is woken by a cracking sound: a transformation has occurred.

Eliza takes her stone bird everywhere until autumn comes and with it school: Eliza’s bird remains on her bedside table.
Another object – a small grey oval stone appears beside it one morning.
Winter comes bringing frost. Eliza nestles her treasures in a pair of socks.

By spring she’s almost given up waiting but then something extraordinary happens: there are two stone birds in that nest, one big, one tiny.
Then one day, Eliza’s mother opens the bedroom window and that night Eliza’s dream is the sound of beating wings …

Next morning the nest is empty: will Eliza ever see her precious birds again?
A book that celebrates a child’s imagination is one to cheer. I’d hate to think the little girl’s imagination is dampened as she goes through school: perhaps though, the soaring birds on the penultimate spread are symbolic of her imaginative spirit spreading its wings.

Daisy Doodles / Ella Who?

Daisy Doodles
Michelle Robinson, Irene Dickson & Tom Weller
Oxford University Press
Get ready to go doodle crazy with Daisy.
One rainy day the little girl is stuck indoors and almost before she can say ‘Pipsqueak’ her drawing has upped off the page and is helping the child adorn the entire house with doodles of all shapes and sizes.
The rain stops but that is not the end of the adventure; in fact it’s the beginning of a whole exciting experience,

as dragons and dragonflies, castles and carousels, mermaids and much more are conjured into being, which culminates in the claw-wielding, jaw-snapping Battle of Crayon Creek.
All good things have to end though and end they do when the tickly octopus chases everyone back home and mum appears on the scene …

although that is not quite the end of the story …
In this lovely celebration of children’s creativity and imagination, the book’s creators cleverly use the device of a mirror to transport the little girl and her companion into their fantasy world of make-believe and back again: a world created by a variety of doodle-appropriate media.
With all the exciting visuals, it would be easy to overlook Michelle’s manner of telling, which, with its sprinklings of alliteration, and interjections of dialogue, is also a delight and allows plenty of space for Irene Dickson’s illustrations to create their magic.

Ella Who?
Linda Ashman and Sara Sanchez
Sterling
There’s a touch or two of the Not Now Bernard’s about this story of a family moving day. The parents of the young narrator are far too busy to take notice of their daughter’s talk of the presence of an elephant in the living room of the home they’re moving in to.
While mum, dad …

and grandma are engaged in getting their new abode into some kind of order, the little girl, having ensured that her baby brother is soundly asleep, engages in some elephant-shared activities, first in her new bedroom and then, outside in the garden. And that is where our narrator notices a man coming to the front door: a man inquiring about a missing baby elephant going by the name of Fiona and having – so it says in the flier he leaves – a particular penchant for apples, . Surely it couldn’t be … could it?

Much of the humour of this book is in the interplay of words and pictures: It’s the little elephant that hands dad a tool as he struggles to fix the shower – a fact he’s completely oblivious to as he utters the story’s “Ella WHO?” catch phrase. As are the other family members, throughout the book: even on the penultimate spread, having told her mum she’s just been bidding the elephant farewell, she gets this same “Ella WHO?” response from her dad.
An extended joke that works well enough to engage young children who will be amused at the adults who don’t listen and delight in joining in with the repeat question.

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Me and My Dad

Me and My Dad
Robin Shaw
Hodder Children’s Books
It’s small wonder that the little girl narrator of this wonderful book has such a powerful imagination: it’s due in no small measure to the fact that, ‘the best bit’s at the end’ Not the end of the book although that is also true; the end referred to in the story is at the end of the road, the end of their journey; the place where a father and daughter are heading when they set out together. That though is getting ahead of the story.
To reach their destination, they walk through an alleyway with a puddle that might well have crocodiles in; then continue beneath the brick viaduct carrying the railway line with its rumbling, roaring trains; past the castle-like house wherein dwells a sleeping princess just waiting for her prince to come.

Mrs Pot’s plant shop causes the walkers to halt briefly for a sneaky peep inside …

and then come the pet shop and the ironmongers with its old metal bins on sale – perfect for blasting off into space … In fact every single place father and daughter pass sends the little girl off on another flight of fancy until at last, the end IS in sight – Buntings Bookshop and Café awaits. Hurray! Now it’s time for a delicious hot chocolate and a snuggle-up read together: what better way to end a walk.

With it’s irresistible join in phrase this is an utterly enchanting read and one of the very best father and child books I’ve seen in a long time. Animator, Robin Shaw’s detailed scenes have a soft luminescence about them, which is perfect for the fusion of the real and the imagined he conjures up.

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The Ammuchi Puchi

The Ammuchi Puchi
Sharanya Manivanna and Nerina Canzi
Lantana Publishing
To visit India, no matter which part, is an assault on the senses, especially that first time: the sights, sounds, smells, the sheer seeming chaos that surrounds you is almost, though not quite, overwhelming. But somehow, for me at least, there is something about it that gets right into your spirit and doesn’t want to let go; so, you keep on going back again and again and … then, you realise that you’ve fallen in love with the place. This picture book evokes some of the wonderful sights, sounds and smells of the country.
Now one of the most striking things about India, particularly the southern part is the dazzling, dancing array of butterflies and it’s something my partner and I both appreciate every time we go. I happen to have picked up a few words of Malayalam and thought I recognised Ammuchi as mother but then realised that word is ‘ummachi’ ; I know grandmother, or rather maternal grandmother as ‘ammacci’ in Tamil (having taught some Tamil speaking 5 year olds in my reception classes) and my Hindi, which is much better, tells me that ‘puchi’ means kiss. So, before even opening this gorgeous book, I was making lots of connections and deciding the title means ‘grandmother’s kiss’.
Let’s get to the story then: the setting, I think, is rural south India; and its narrator is Aditya who lives with his younger sister, Anjali, their parents (Amma and Appa) and grandmother, Ammuchi.

The two children adore their paan-chewing grandmother, despite being somewhat scared by her ghost stories – “Don’t you see it sitting there, with eyes big-big like two moons?” until that is, they grow out of being spooked and join in with her tales of ghost sightings, furnishing their own details to add to her descriptions of the mango-tree dwelling manifestation.

Just as Aditya’s tenth birthday approaches, Ammuchi gets ill, has to go into hospital and dies. The two youngsters, like their parents, grieve and the children in particular struggle to come to terms with their loss: that constant ray of sunshine no more illuminates their lives …

But then one evening a beautiful butterfly flies down and settles on Anjali’s head. It’s “Ammuchi Puchi,” she tells her brother. Next day at school, he tells his classmates of the event, saying, “Ammuchi Puchi is an insect who is our grandmother.” Despite their ambivalence, back home that evening, Aditya ponders further and becomes convinced that the butterfly is in fact his grandmother. His parents’ response and seeming lack of understanding, result in the Ammuchi Puchi becoming the children’s secret. It turns out though, that it’s not only the children who have a secret: the Ammuchi Puchi has one too: one that she reveals to the brother and sister one rainy night;

and so begins the healing and the understanding that Ammuchi’s love will always permeate their lives, no matter what.
Grandmothers have a very special place in Indian families in particular, but grief is a universal phenomenon. What Sharanya Manivannan’s moving, thought-provoking narrative offers for all readers is, ‘a place from which to become aware’. Yes, it’s deeply sad in part; but ultimately it’s about much more than heart-breaking loss and grief: this is a joyous celebration of love, of a very special person who relished life; of family; of the beauty of the natural world; and of the power of the imagination. No matter your feelings about, or understanding of, reincarnation, the author’s symbolising of the grandmother as a butterfly both comforts the child characters and allows for open-ended responses from readers everywhere.
Nerina Canzi’s illustrations complement the telling beautifully. The predominance of vibrant hues in the lush flora and fauna, the fabrics of the clothing, the kolam design on the school floor, the carpets and rugs, underscores the Indian setting while at the same time, reinforcing the message that the story is essentially, about abiding love and the way children have a propensity to transcend deeply upsetting events. In contrast, almost all colour is leeched from the spread dealing with Ammuchi’s dying, reflecting the palpable desolation her death brings to the whole family, and rendering it all the more affecting for readers, not least this reviewer.
A must have book for all family bookshelves and primary classroom collections.

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Fantastical Journeys

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Are We There Yet?
Nina Laden and Adam McCauley
Chronicle Books
A small boy and his mother set off to drive to Grandma’s and they’ve barely started the journey when the boy pipes up with the words most parents are all too familiar with, “Are we there yet?” It’s a question that is repeated over and over together with mum’s “No.” response as the trip takes them onto the motorway, across a suspension bridge …

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through farming countryside and a desert landscape, each of which includes increasingly surreal happenings …

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They then leave the road and go first beneath the sea …

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And then deep into outer space …

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before finally emerging at their destination to be greeted by Gran whose garden is filled with topiaries of various things observant readers will have noticed along the way. And what does the boy have to say about the journey? He certainly doesn’t seem to number among the observant ones. His, to my mind, enigmatic final response seems at odds with what I had all along been taking (and celebrating as such) to be a series of glorious flights of fancy. Was it or was it not all in the child’s head?
McCauley’s mixed media illustrations are deliciously playful: look carefully at the opening living room scene and there, mainly scattered around the floor and sofa, are objects whose significance emerges during the drive.
A great book for developing visual literacy and developing talk most certainly; and those just starting to read too will get enormous pleasure in being able to read the minimal text themselves. There is so much to discover in every spread; this is one to revisit time and again when new insights and meanings will emerge.

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My Family is a Zoo
K.A.Gerrard and Emma Dodd
Bloomsbury Children’s Books
Courtesy of a boy narrator we learn what happens when he and his dad start out on a journey (destination unknown to the younger of the two at least) together with one or two additional passengers.

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On route they stop to pick up other family members together with their special friends

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Seems the car has an every increasing capacity to take on all those extra passengers …
but where are they all going?

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This is ‘not so much a family – More a family zoo!’
Finally they reach their destination where a wonderful surprise awaits …

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There’s so much to enjoy in this story told through Kelly Gerrard’s gently humorous rhyming text that reads aloud well and Emma Dodd’s cute and cuddlesome character-filled scenes.

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Poppy Pickle

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Poppy Pickle
Emma Yarlett
Templar Publishing
Joyful exuberance leaps out from this one right from the start – despite the downpour. I guess I was predisposed to loving it after reading ‘A little girl with a BIG imagination’ on the cover. This small girl’s imagination knows no bounds when she’s banished to her bedroom for some high-spirited imaginings …

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Before long, her entire room is crammed with all kinds of crazy creatures and Poppy is in her element.

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But good things don’t go on forever as our heroine discovers all too soon. Totally diverting delight turns to utter disaster as her mum and dad begin to twig that’s she’s not actually tidying her room as instructed.

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However, imagining things isn’t a reversible reaction as Poppy discovers when she tries some desperate ‘un-imagining.’ Equally unsuccessful is the imagined giant eraser ploy; is it all up for Poppy then? Fortunately, not quite.: we have been told she has a BIG imagination so, in the nick of time there follows a light-bulb moment …

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But that still leaves a lot of explaining to do …
Oh, and the after tea tidying up, and the dressing down; but even that doesn’t dent our young heroine’s unsquashable imagination – hurray for Poppy say I. ‘TA-DAH!
Wonderful idea – wonderfully delivered in a deliciously droll and direct manner, and wonderfully wackily and wittily portrayed.
Wonderful, wonderful, wonderful.

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The Wonder

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The Wonder
Faye Hanson
Templar Publishing
If you want a beautiful book and one that celebrates the imagination, then most definitely The Wonder is for you; indeed I can’t imagine many people who would say no to either of those things.
I have a good friend in Rajasthan, India, an artist, who has this written large on the wall of his studio: “ Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.” Picasso. Essentially this quote is the key to Faye Hanson’s fantastic book.
The story follows one small duffle-coated boy who finds something to wonder about in everything he sees. He sets out for school through the park, onto the bus, then across the road with the lollipop lady

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and into the school building.
(Children want to know why such a little boy is going to school alone and why he wears his coat in science.) I wonder …
At every stage he encounters adults who, seemingly, want to stifle his imagination, none more that his ‘form teacher’ who barks, “No daydreaming today” in greeting and his science teacher who isn’t interested in his question about the stars (What kind of school is this? one wonders). Joy of joys though, his art teacher has written up on a board in the art room, that very Picasso quote I mentioned and she clearly believes what it says. Here in her room, the boy is encouraged to use his imagination and truly he does as his daydreams take flight across the, initially daunting, large blank page in front of him.
It’s at this point in the story that the predominantly sepia tones of the illustrations give way to glorious, coloured, intricately detailed flights of fancy. There’s a park scene with amazing subterranean animal homes among the tree roots…

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A skyscape with cloud makers creating incredible dreams …
A mouth-watering edible landscape, a glorious playground parade populated by all manner of animals

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and finally (my favourite and also hidden under the dust jacket) wherein the galaxy makers wield star-shaped dough cutters and every star is buffed and polished to make it shine.
Just like the boy in the story, Faye Hanson’s imagination knows no bounds. Not only the fantasy scenes, but every one of her spreads, including the sepia-toned real world ones, are filled with wonderful details: and, it is actually these early spreads, with their brighter coloured daydream insertions, that are harbingers of what is to come.
What a fortunate child to have adults – his parents

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as well as his art teacher -in his life who at a crucial stage, encourage the boy to use his imagination for, on the final endpapers we are shown that same boy, now wearing a much larger duffel coat standing between his parents and an amazing spiralling exhibit in a large gallery – one assumes his sense of wonder has been encouraged to flourish.
Totally immersive, inspiring and a joy to behold, this is not just for dreamers. I would love to see this amazing and powerful book as a required focus for reading and discussion on every course where teachers are in training, for every teacher in schools and for all those who design (and prescribe) curriculums. If only I had the power to prescribe … I wonder what might happen, I wonder …
The trouble is you cannot measure imagination.

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