Our Tower

Our Tower
Joesph Coelho and Richard Johnson
Frances Lincoln Children’s Books

This is Joseph Coelho’s first book as Children’s Laureate and what a truly magical one it is. Inspired by Joseph’s childhood growing up with his sister in a tower block on an estate in Roehampton, close to Richmond Park it is deeply personal and exquisitely told. The story – a modern fable – follows three children who live in a high-rise block, ‘Boring, hard and grey.’ but with a view to greenness beyond the drab grey, as they venture away from the suburban streets in search of a special tree with big leafy brows.

Having found what they were seeking,

the children tumble through a gap in its trunk into a magical world deep down where all kinds of creatures lurk.

There too on a throne sits an old tree-grown green man with bushy brows and he holds out something to the three. It’s a circular stone with a hole in the middle; this he gives the children and it’s as though he’s given them a new lens through which to view the world. For when they peer through the hole ‘the world goes upside-a-diddle’ and they suddenly see their own tower in a completely new light. It’s full of the love and laughter that they’d really been seeking all along: a place where everyday magic can happen once you know how to look.

Looking is assuredly what the artist Richard Johnson has done for his powerfully atmospheric, evocative illustrations. It’s so brilliant how his colour palette changes as the children move between their mundane urban home environment, the fantasy world and the natural one; this adds to the feeling of poetry in motion in Jospeh’s lyrical words. Richard includes details of architecture and sculpture (a version of Lynn Chadwick’s The Watchers) that make several links for this reviewer as well as the author.

Full of hope and enchantment, this timely story is a glorious fusion of words and pictures that blends the mundane and the dark with the magical and the triumphant, the urban and the countryside: nature and magic are everywhere if you know how to look. Unmissable this.

An Artist’s Eyes

An Artist’s Eyes
Frances Tosdevin and Clémence Monnet
Frances Lincoln Children’s Books

As the story opens adult Mo and young Jo are out walking together. Readers are invited to notice their eyes – they have the same friendliness, shape and smallness but Mo’s eyes are different: she has artist’s eyes. As they walk through various different natural places Mo comments imaginatively on their surroundings: she sees the seascape as ‘a dazzling duck-egg blue, a swirl of peacocks and the inky, indigo of evening, whereas Jo says it’s “so blue!” As they continue Jo describes the forest literally as “green” whereas Mo sees “a shiny apple-green, the lime of gooseberries, and the spring zinginess of moss.”

The field of yellow flowers are “bright yellow” to Jo and Mo notices variations in shades. “Notice how light changes the colour. See the mellow yellow of melons and the pale pastel of primroses.” Jo’s response is despondent: he becomes angry and frustrated at not seeing like an artist.

Patiently, Mo encourages him to trust his own eyes and little by little Jo begins to see what they show him; and what they show him as he deploys his imaginative powers to the full are patterns, textures, shapes and more.

No, he doesn’t see as Mo sees but he does now see with artist’s eyes.

Assuredly, with Clémence Monnet’s gorgeous mixed media illustrations, and Frances Tosdevin’s empowering story, this is a book that, shared with the right adult, will encourage youngsters to accept, employ and make the most of the unique skills they have, as well as conveying the idea that everyone can see like an artist and describe imaginatively what they see.


David Walliams and Tony Ross
Harper Collins Children’s Books

When a new hatchling penguin going by the unlikely name of Geronimo bursts into the snowy world of the Antarctic he’s fuelled by a determination to become airborne, despite his father’s assertions that penguins can’t fly.

His first attempt sees him plunging headlong into the freezing-cold ocean. Unabashed he relaunches himself, this time using a seal’s enormous belly as a springboard, only to nose dive into deep snow.

But Geronimo isn’t ready to give in that easily: he has the ingenious notion of placing his bottom over the blowhole of a whale. This rather reckless rear end rest results in his needing beak-to-beak resuscitation from his pa.

Thoughts of flight now fill not only his every waking moment but also his dreams – every single night it’s the same …

Eventually, the Emperor emperor penguin instructs his Dad to tell Geronimo once and for all he’s to stop trying. But surely that can’t be the end of his aeronautic antics?

Perhaps not, with the collective brains of the colony working overtime …
After all there is more that one way of looking at things now isn’t there? It’s certainly so if you happen to be a yogi, or at least, like the adult penguins in the story, able to stand on your head.

Totally crazy but then this is David Walliams with his off the wall humour. Tony Ross adds his own brilliant touches of zaniness with a sequence of hilarious spreads of Geronimo’s efforts and the optical delusion that finally makes his dream come true.

Hold fast to your dreams – what a great message for young children.

The Little Mouse and the Red Wall

The Little Mouse and the Red Wall
Britta Teckentrup
Orchard Books

Little Mouse lives in a community surrounded by a big red wall. It’s always been there but why? And what lies beyond?
When she asks the other animals, each one comes up with a different reason – for protection, thinks Scaredy Cat; Old Bear cannot remember; Fox doesn’t care and Lion Who Had Lost His Roar says  ‘just a big black nothing’ is behind the wall.

None of these responses satisfy Little Mouse but then one day she meets a Bluebird. Thanks to the bird, she is able to discover the answers to her questions.

What she sees – a world of freedom and beauty – and an ensuing conversation with the Bluebird are life changing, altering completely her way of seeing and being in the world.
They were looking with fear… YOU are looking with wonder. You were brave enough to find out the truth for yourself.

Little Mouse goes back to her friends and tells them of the wonders she’s seen and one by one they walk through the wall, all except Lion, although one day he too is ready to join the others in the land beyond.

Despite the simplicity of her telling, Britta Teckentrup’s beautifully illustrated story is profound and would be an ideal starting point for a community of enquiry style philosophical discussion.

When we in the UK, and other countries, seem to be putting up boundaries, its timely themes of discovering freedom and embracing change, both personal and in the world, will resonate with both children and adults.

We’re All Works of Art

We’re All Works of Art
Mark Sperring and Rose Blake
Pavilion Children’s Books

In a cleverly constructed rhyming narrative, Mark Sperring introduces young readers and listeners to a whole host of different styles of art while at the same time celebrating human diversity and the uniqueness of every human being.

Highly accessible and beautifully illustrated by Rose Blake who provides a series of bold illustrations clearly inspired by famous artists and works of art from prehistoric times through to Fauvism, Cubism and on to Pop art and Contemporary art.

Look out for Magritte,

Matisse …

and Indian miniatures

and Peter Blake; no matter what you like there should be something to please here and if it doesn’t make you want to visit one of our many wonderful art galleries, then I’d be surprised.

Equally, it should inspire readers to experiment with various art styles for themselves.

Great fun and gently educational too. One for the family collection and for schools of all kinds.

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My Museum / Crocodali

My Museum
Joanne Liu
Here’s a thoroughly cool little wordless book by Joanne Liu, an illustrator/artist I’ve not come across before.
Max pays a visit to an art museum. It’s full of paintings and sculptures, each one an important work of art. Where better to go for a bit of art appreciation?
Max however, wonderfully divergent and imaginative child that he is, quickly discovers that there’s a whole lot more to see and enjoy than what the curators have put on display.
Art is everywhere, if you know how to look; and if you know how to look, you can also be a creative artist. That’s the message that shines through in each and every action of our young protagonist as he wanders among the grown-ups who are absorbed in the various exhibits, discovering art through the windows, on a burly man’s arm,

by changing his viewpoint, and by seeing the potential in other unlikely places …

He even explores ways of making his own …

A delight through and through.

Lucy Volpin
Templar Publishing
There’s a touch of Hervé Tullet in Lucy Volpin’s latest story. It stars Crocodali, who greets us, more than a little reluctantly, as we enter his studio.
The self-confessed ‘most talented artist in the whole wide world’ is about to start on a new painting but is having a little bother getting his canvas positioned. That’s when he decides to enlist the reader’s help.
Before you can say ‘masterpiece’ he has us tilting, tipping, shaking …

and rubbing and even blowing on the book,

as we become co-creators of his latest work of art. It’s bound to be stupendous; or is it?
Engaging, interactive, humorous and delightfully messy.

Six Blind Mice and An Elephant

Six Blind Mice and an Elephant
Jude Daly
Otter-Barry Books
So often in my teaching career have I used Six Blind Men and an Elephant that despite having the book beside me, I instinctively mistyped the title of Jude Daly’s rendition of the Indian fable at the start of this review.
Daly sets her story somewhere in rural South Africa and begins with a somewhat sleepy elephant wandering from its forest habitat into a farmer’s barn and there falling fast asleep in the straw. On discovering it and excited by his find, the farmer rounds up his family and neighbours to view the creature and its wonders.

Meanwhile six blind mice nesting in a tree nearby are aroused from their slumbers by a strange aroma. Eager to discover the source of this new sensation, they follow their noses, encounter a cat and take refuge in a hole where they hear the humans chatting about the visitor asleep in the farmer’s barn. Search over they decide, and once the crowd has dispersed off they go to the barn.
Suddenly “Ouch!” that’s the oldest mouse coming up rather hard against the elephant’s side and declaring the beast to be “like a – wall”.

The second mouse disagrees likening the animal to a spear as she almost nose dives from the end of a tusk. And so it goes on with the other four mice giving their opinions based on partial evidence until as the youngest completes its simile, the somnolent pachyderm gives a flap of its enormous ears and expostulates so loudly that the rodents run for cover. The elephant then delivers a piece-by-piece description of himself (love those palm fan-like ears)

before finally, likening himself to … (readers aloud might want to pause at that point and give listeners an opportunity to complete the sentence) and crashing out once more exhausted by laughter.
Exit six fully satisfied mice …
Daly’s playful take on the fable still leaves plenty of food for thought and is perfect for a community of enquiry style discussion with early years or primary children.
Glowing African light radiates from every one of her illustrations; the golden straw-strewn barn floor is for me, reminiscent of some of the fractured swirls of Hockney’s pool painting.

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We’re All Wonders

We’re All Wonders
Puffin Books
This awe-inspiring picture book is narrated by the hero character of Palacio’s incredibly moving novel, Wonder. I was totally knocked out by this new Auggie book. Here, in relatively few, perfectly chosen words, the boy narrator tells us what it’s like to be him – an extraordinary boy who, like other children, does ordinary, everyday things. Things that are discounted by others because of how he looks. His mum calls him ‘a wonder’; his dog is in agreement but, so he says, “ … some people don’t see that I’m a wonder. All they see is how different I look. Sometimes they stare at me. They point or laugh. They even say mean things behind my back. But I can hear them.”

Most children have ways of transcending difficulties: Auggie’s manner of so doing is supremely brilliant. He dons his helmet and together with his dog, Daisy, blasts off through the clouds, traversing the galaxy to land on Pluto. It’s there after an encounter with old friends, that he is able to see things from a different perspective. “Earth is big enough for all kinds of people” he says, Such wise words, which he follows with a hope that people can change the way they see him and themselves.

His concluding “Look with kindness and you will always find wonder” are words that each and every one of us would do well to keep at the forefront of everything we do and every encounter we have.

Then, who knows, with passion and courage, perhaps we can change the world … It’s definitely worth trying.

I’ve signed the charter

They All Saw a Cat / Picture This

%0AThey All Saw a Cat
Brendan Wenzel
Chronicle Books
A cat is a cat, is a cat, no matter what. Right? Perhaps not. The world looks different depending on the lenses through which we view it, surely? I certainly think so. It’s a wonderfully philosophical consideration brilliantly demonstrated by author/illustrator Brendan Wenzel in this creative, thought-provoking mixed media exploration of observation, imagination and perspectives, which begins thus:
‘The cat walked through the world, with its whiskers, ears and paws …’. The child sees the cat, the dog sees the cat – sleek and slinky, the fox sees the cat – chunky and stubby, the fish sees the cat thus …


and the mouse – well the mouse sees an alarmingly jaggedy, predatory monster, and the bee sees a pointillist image. On walks the cat and is seen by the bird, the flea, the snake, the worm and the bat …


A dozen sightings, every one through different lenses, lenses which create shifts between texture, colour and tone, underlined after all twelve sightings by ‘YES, THEY ALL SAW A CAT!’


We’re then told ‘The cat knew them all, and they knew the cat.’ –a lengthy discussion might ensue from this statement alone. But wait, we’re not quite done yet; the cat walks on and comes to the water: imagine what it saw …
Wenzel uses a range of painterly styles borrowed from impressionism, pointillism and others to make readers think about how perception, art and emotion are intricately linked. But that’s not all: the use of italics and capitals and the patterned structure of the narrative all contribute to the impact of the whole.
This is a book that can be used right across the age range from early years to adult students of art and philosophy: what a wonderful way to help the young to begin to understand and give credence to other people’s viewpoints.

The manner in which emotions are engaged and affected by the visual composition of images is explored in the revised and extended edition of a fascinating and insightful book first published 25 years ago:


Picture This
Molly Bang
Chronicle Books
In the first hundred or so pages, Molly Bang takes the story of Little Red Riding Hood and shows how different placement of cut paper shapes and colours on the page work together to help create and build up emotionally charged scenes, our perceptions of which are bound by the context of our own experience. Why does a triangle placed on a flat base give us a feeling of stability whereas diagonal shapes make us feel tense?


How come we feel more scared looking at pointed shapes, and more secure or comforted looking at rounded shapes or curves? These questions are explored as are others of colour choice and combination.
In the second, much shorter (new to the revised edition) section of the book, the author takes her story When Sophie Gets Angry – Really, Really Angry, and using four pictures from it, looks at how she created four distinct feelings – one per illustration – of Fury, Sadness, Expectancy and Contentment/contemplation and uses them to explore the principles she’s looked at in the first part. And the final pages invite readers to create and analyse a picture of their own. Perhaps but first I’m off to take another look at some picture books starting with Bethan Woollvin’s Little Red.


Get into Art

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8 Ways to Draw an Elephant
Paola Ferrarotti & various artists
Tara Books
Before even opening this unusual book I suspect I was predisposed to like it. I’m a huge fan of Indian art and elephants, and over numerous visits have collected a fair number of both two and three dimensional representations, several of which I’ve actually watched being created.
Now here’s an opportunity to introduce children to Indian art from a number of different traditions, with artistic representation from eight artists being showcased, each in a double spread.
Before that though, the book begins with a vital question: What it art? This is followed by four images of elephants: a photo, a drawing, an outline and a creative representation and Paulo Ferrarotti goes on to encourage readers to think about each medium and the similarities and differences between the resulting images. Indeed the narrative throughout the entire book is not about giving answers, rather, its concern is with getting children to do their own thinking – education in the true sense i.e. opening up.
The book provides blank outline templates for children to try out their own ideas having looked closely at the example of each style; those included being Rajasthani Meena …

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Patua from West Bengal, Saora from Orissa/Odisha and Madhubani from Bihar.

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Interestingly though, the elephants themselves are both Indian and African. At the back on the cover flap is a brief outline of each of the artistic traditions represented and opposite is an almost completely blank page, with a few words inviting children to draw and decorate their own elephant, asking ‘What is the elephant eating? Is it raining or sunny? Day or night?
All in all, this is a fascinating and exciting, creative learning opportunity for the young (and not so young).
What next? Sun representations? Or if you want to stick to animals: Camels? Horses? Peacocks? There’s plenty of scope where Indian art is concerned.


The Little Caillebotte
Catherine de Duve
Kate ‘Art Editions
In this unassuming little book, Catherine De Duve, art historian and painter who worked at the Royal Museum of Fine Arts of Belgium, introduces readers to impressionist painter Gustave Caillebotte. The artist spent some of his time in Yerres, (some 20 km from Paris) and this is featured in many of his paintings, some of which are shown herein. Art however was only one of his many passions and talents:


he also loved sailing, gardening and naval architecture, and was a philanthropist. Information about all of this is included; and we learn too, of his friendships with other impressionist painters Monet and Renoir.
I knew very little about this artist save for some of his paintings until I read this fascinating introduction. It’s a book to get children thinking about art – Caillebotte’s of course, but also about impressionism, their own art, the countryside, the town and more: I really like the way that the narrative draws in and engages young readers.

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A Groovy World and A Fishy One

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It’s A Groovy World, Alfredo!
Sean Taylor and Chris Garbutt
Walker Books
Alfredo (frog) is not into groovy dancing so when he receives an invitation to Rick’s birthday party where such dancing is scheduled under disco lights, he is less than enthusiastic. Marty promises to teach him all the moves and arrives at Alfredo’s house ready to demonstrate COOL BOOGIE STYLE. Alfredo’s efforts are far from the knees bend, shimmy-shammy shuffle demonstrated by his winged friend; indeed they are a total flop.

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So too is his rendering of the SPEEDY HEEBIE-JEEBIES which is totally unlike Marty’s …


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But worst of all is the SILKY-SMOOTH MOVING AND GROOVING as done by our pal Alfredo. It’s his jump, jump, jumping that wrecks it every time. Nonetheless, Marty is eager to take his friend along to that party so off they go …

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where assuredly, rhythm does take control of Marty but our jumping Alfredo? That’s altogether a different story; and procrastination not withstanding …

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Could it now be that a fourth way of grooving has been added to the approved party dance agenda?
Prolific author Sean Taylor has joined forces with animation artist, Garbutt and it’s an entirely appropriate collaboration for this exuberant and funky foray into disco dancing fly- and frog-style. Upbeat, outgoing Marty is the ideal foil to self-conscious, floppy-footed, Alfredo.

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Children’s mixed media responses to Fish’s world view of what Frog saw.


Fish is Fish
Leo Lionni
Andersen Press pbk
Another classic Leo Lionni story is reissued and it’s still as powerful as ever with today’s children (and adults who may well have heard it the first time around). At the heart of this multi-layered tale is the notion that we all look at the world through different lenses: our world-view depends on our life experience and that limits the way in which we think about and understand others and their cultures.
In the story we watch what happens when close friends, a minnow and a tadpole, having begun to talk philosophically, start to grow apart as they develop; and in particular tadpole, changes. As frog, he climbs out of the pond and goes off to explore the wider world returning weeks later full of excited accounts of what he has seen.
His friend imagines the birds, cows and humans he hears of with fishy characteristics

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and as the days pass, the curious minnow resolves to see such amazing creatures for himself. His foray onto land however is a near disaster and it’s only thanks to his amphibious friend, that the fish is safely returned to his watery home – ‘the most beautiful of all worlds’ – for fish anyhow.
A wonderfully dramatic story and a thoughtful look at what constitutes truth and how we construct reality: postmodernism for primary children. It’s a great jumping off point too for further philosophical discussion and exploration of ideas relating to being true to oneself, enduring friendship and much more, depending on the age and stage of the audience.

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