Posted in general and welcome, picture books

Oh so Pretty

Just what is it that makes a person pretty? Canizales looks at this topic in the new picture book Pretty, which is a perfect Hallowe’en read.

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The picture book Pretty is ‘a warts-and-all story about being yourself’, according to the strapline on the front cover. And that is what the witchy heroine on the cover is like – covered in warts (well, at least one large one on her nose) – as well as having green skin and very spiky, bristly hair. ‘Is she pretty?’ I ask the groups of children I read to. The answer is a resounding, and nearly deafening ‘NO!’

It turns out that warts, green skin, a hunched and crooked back, and a pointy chin are not physical attributes that garner someone praise. This is what leads our witchy heroine down a route of self-improvement, with advice from various forest animals about what she needs to do to look at least a little bit more attractive for her date with a troll. Every animal she meets suggests what might make her prettier, such as a straight back; a neat, little nose; a dainty chin and wavy sleek hair. The problem is, when the witch arrives, very out of breath and late for her date with her troll, she looks nothing like herself anymore. The troll grumpily scarpers and the witch is left horrified by what she’s done to herself in the name of beauty. With a quick wave of her wand, she’s back to normal, and looking for another date (and perhaps some vengeance).

The children enjoyed this story and participated with in its telling. We waved our wands to change her physique and discussed whether the witch did in fact look prettier (the answer was always ‘NO!’ – poor thing, all that trouble for nothing). The bit at the end where the witch has a more successful outcome on her picnic was perhaps not the best thing to read just before lunch but I felt a certain schadenfreude at it (not sure if the children did). I had hoped that someone might pipe up with the statement that the book was about being yourself and not worrying what other people said or thought about you but the children just kept proclaiming that the witch was ugly and that not much could make her any more pleasing to the eye. Which I suppose is proof that this title doesn’t rely on schmaltzy morals – instead it tells a funny story with a bit of revenge on the side that will have children laughing.

The language is great, as is the humour (not sure if the children understood what ‘dating’ was but they didn’t raise it as an issue), the tone quite tongue in cheek and the illustrations marvellously simple but effective. This is a fun and different read for Hallowe’en and definitely not as sweet and sickly as you might originally think.

Pretty, by Canizales, is published by Templar books, who sent me a review copy.

 

 

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Posted in general and welcome, non-fiction

Two nab-them-now non-fiction books

Today’s review on Childtastic concerns two amazing non-fiction books from Dorling Kindersley, which any child fascinated by fun facts will want to have at their disposal.

The first is:

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When I was little, I used to carry around a huge but deceptively light paperback book about amazing facts. I couldn’t get enough of learning about people, places and things from around the world and I’d tell anyone who would listen what I’d discovered. I still have that book – I can’t bear to give it away – but this new release from DK is a great addition.

The premise is simple: a double-page spread for more than 100 topics with 13 concrete facts about them and then a half-a-fact that acts as a myth-buster. For example, looking at the snowboarding infogram (Feel the Force – there’s a lot of pleasing alliteration in here and play on words), I discovered that while many people think that snowboarding is dangerous, you’re more likely to get injured playing football, basketball or rugby. (Tell my knees that!). Meanwhile, on the ‘Get the Message’ spread (about methods of communication throughout the ages), I was surprised to read that car phones date back to 1946, although to be honest you would have needed a car anyway to transport them, since they were a handset attached to a 36kg (80lb) box.

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Image of Planet Parade, from the book.

The best ideas are simple ones and I can see that this will be a hugely popular addition to my school library. The children love books in which they can find facts quickly and easily and the accompanying images are arresting (I must admit I skipped past the enormous fly and the skull with the eyes literally out on stalks). This book is big, bright and brimming with fascinating facts that you can keep coming back to when you want to learn something new. I’m off now to read more about storms … not in teacups, though.

And… I’m back. The second title under the microscope today is a tome that requires some upper-body strength to lift.

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If you have a budding naturist at home, this is a must-read. The authors and illustrators of this book have chosen a huge variety of creatures and looked at them from different viewpoints, helped by the use of specially commissioned photography.  For example, in the spread below, ‘How Herbivores Work’, we find out exactly what it is that makes herbivores the animals they are, rather than the simple knowledge that they eat plants. They specifically need large digestive systems to help them break down the massive amounts of hard-to-digest cellulose that they ingest. As you can see in the picture below, giraffes often grab their food with their tongue, which is dark-coloured to help protect them from getting sunburnt (scientists think). I never knew that!

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A page I found fascinating was on how octopuses work. I had no idea, for example, that they are relatives of slugs and snails, and that they are amongst the most intelligent of invertebrates. Also, thanks to their soft composition (no hard internal or external shell), octopuses can squeeze through most spaces, as long as their beak fits (the only part of them that is hard). They are nature’s escape artists: ‘Houdinis’ with 8 legs.

I admit I skipped the insect pages – I have no stomach for creepy crawlies up close – but I had a good look through the rest of the book, which comprises ten chapters covering:

  • the basics of life
  • microorganisms
  • plants
  • invertebrates
  • fish
  • amphibians
  • reptiles
  • birds
  • mammals
  • habitats.

This is a huge compendium full of answers to all sorts of questions that any young natural scientist may have, such as why chameleons change colour, how wings work, and how trees work (did you know that more than 99% of a big tree trunk is actually dead?). This will be another much-borrowed book in the library, though I may have to ensure the children have adequate biceps to carry it!

Please note that while I received review copies of both books, the views expressed are entirely my own.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in general and welcome, poetry

Happy National Poetry Day!

Today is National Poetry Day and I thought there is no better way to celebrate on Childtastic than by reviewing Michael Rosen’s hilarious poem ‘Chocolate Cake’, which was recently turned into a colourful and exciting picture book, with illustrations by Kevin Waldron.

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Most of us love a piece of chocolate cake but Michael takes it to extremes when he wakes up one night thinking of the glorious baking creation his mother has left in the kitchen. He is usually allowed to take a piece to school for lunch or break but he can’t wait that long. He wants cake. Now.

Michael creeps downstairs, trying to avoid the creaky floorboard, and once inside the kitchen finds the object of his desire – a towering beauty of a chocolate cake. In a way that is disturbingly similar to my way of thinking, he reasons that it’s OK to swipe up a few crumbs on his fingertip, then tidy an uneven slice here and there… until the tidying means the cake has completely disappeared into his belly. What’s he going to do?!

The children roared with laughter when I read this book to them. They loved the suspense of creeping down to the kitchen at night (most said it was their favourite part of the story) and they totally understood why it was imperative to eat the cake in the middle of the night, although a few faint-hearted souls hid their faces behind their books as Michael ate his way into trouble (some even muttering ‘nonononono!’). The little exclamations peppered throughout the pages had them guffawing and as soon as I had finished it, they demanded I read it another time. Instead, I played a great recording of Michael Rosen performing the poem himself, which you can watch here.

Chocolate Cake is now a firm favourite in the library and is always requested as a read. Parents who visit us after school on a Wednesday are roped into reading it and enjoy it just as much. The only problem is… well, I want a piece. Now!

Please note that I was sent a copy of Chocolate Cake to review by Puffin Books.

Posted in general and welcome, non-fiction

Even more animal magic!

Childtastic has animal fever this week, with Britta Teckentrup’s beautiful Where’s the Baby yesterday, and two lovely animal titles today, too! The first is Melissa Castrillón’s Animazes, which follows 14 of the world’s most fascinating animal journeys.

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If you ask me what I know about animal migration I’d probably say that I know how salmon in Canada can swim miles and miles back upstream to spawn and die, and that certain (lucky) birds fly south to spend the winter in sunnier climes than in the UK. Not a very impressive bank of knowledge, I know. So, I was fascinated to find out that Mali elephants are constantly on the move to find water and food in the Sahara Desert, even travelling through the aptly-named Porte des Élephants (the Elephant Door) – a passage between two rocky ravines. Apparently, these large, beautiful beasts can travel up to 34 miles a day, though they tend to do so when it’s cooler at night.

And then there are the Christmas Island red crabs, who provide the world with one of the most colourful migrations when 40-50 million of them journey from the central rainforests of the island to the coast to mate and lay their eggs. One of the biggest dangers they face is the automobile, so special underground tunnels have been made to help protect them on their journey!

Animazes is designed so that readers must find their way from the creature’s starting point to their final destination, taking care not to take a wrong turn into a dead end. Fascinating facts are littered throughout the double-page spreads – for example, did you know that a wildebeest calf can run only five minutes after being born?! Melissa Castrillón’s stunning pen and ink drawings are vibrant and magical, lending beautiful artistry to her non-fiction subject matter. This is a book that any child would love to have on their book shelves, or any adult for that matter.

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Animazes is published by Big Picture Press. I received a review copy but the views expressed here are entirely my own.

The second book, My Encyclopedia of Very Important Animals, from Dorling Kindersley, is a mighty tome that’s perfect for animal lovers.

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Split into four sections – All About Animals, Amazing Animals, Animal Antics, and More Very Important Animals, the book is both generalist and specialist when discussing traits belonging to species and individual members. For example, there are over 10,000 species of birds and they all have the following in common: they have feathers that keep them warm and dry, their babies hatch from eggs, and they use their beaks to clean themselves. However, not all birds can fly – emus have the ability to run fast instead. On the other hand (or should I say ‘wing’?) owls have special feathers that enable them to fly silently.

The encyclopedia combines a mixture of photography with illustrations designed to be eye-catching and appealing to children, particularly little ones. The pages aren’t word-heavy so it is easy to find information and absorb it, rather than be inundated by facts and explanations. Graphics such as photographs showing the different sizes of eggs belonging to a hummingbird, chicken and ostrich help children to understand and appreciate perspective and variety, while the colour coding at the top edge of each page helps them (and their adults!) navigate easily around the book.

Encyclopedias for children have come a long way since I was a child, and I think this would be a useful addition to any home or school library. The problem will be getting the child to put it down!

Please note that I received a copy of this book for review.

Posted in general and welcome, picture books

Where’s the Baby?

What better way to introduce young children to the world of adult and baby animals than Britta Teckentrup’s newest title Where’s the Baby?

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This gorgeous book is full of double-page spreads of different animals – large and small – and it’s the reader’s job to try to spot the baby hidden amongst the adults. The left page tells the reader a little about the animal in question and give a little clue as to where the baby may be hiding. Teckentrup does this through a lovely use of poetry (rhyme) which will delight younger (and older) readers and listeners.

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If I’m being honest, there were certain spreads that foxed me for a while, particularly the geese and the seahorses! This felt like a much less stressful and infinitely more pleasurable version of Where’s Wally?, which often gives me a headache and a thumping heart as I search in vain for the stripy-clothes-clad boy. As is always the case, Britta Teckentrup’s artistry is divine and her use of colour sublime. I really can’t wax more lyrical about it. Whenever I receive a book of hers to review, my heart soars.

Where’s the Baby is published by Big Picture Press (Bonnier Publishing). I was sent a copy of the book for review.

Posted in blog tours, general and welcome

Lollies Blog tour – meet Andy Stanton!

Could you drink the sea like Danny McGee does? Find out more, and read an exclusive interview with author Andy Stanton, in today’s post, as part of the 2017 Lollies Blog Tour!

Danny McGee and his sister Frannie go for a daytrip to the seaside, where Danny confidently declares that he can drink the entire body of water. Watched on by his curious (and understandably dubious) sister, Danny proceeds to suck up all the salty water through the world’s longest straw, before going on a rampage to consume everything else in the entire world (including Andy Stanton, who is in the process of writing the book). He thinks he’s got everyone, until he stumbles across Frannie. Will Danny burst? How bad is his indigestion? How will he get rid of all that water if there are no more toilets left?

When I read the book aloud to the children in the school library, they fell about laughing. They all expected Danny to explode or run off for a wee and kept watching in disbelief when he didn’t. They tried to anticipate the rhymes and giggled at the absurdity of the situation, made even more hilarious by Neal Layton’s brilliant, anarchic illustrations. Danny McGee was certainly a winner in our eyes.

Therefore, you can imagine how delighted I was to be offered the opportunity to interview Andy Stanton as part of the Lollies blog tour. Huge thanks to Andy for taking part, and thanks to you for reading. Enjoy!

***

How did you come up with the idea for Danny McGee Drinks the Sea?

For some reason, I’ve always thought that ‘McGee’ is a funny surname. Others seem to agree because it feels like it gets used a lot in comedic writing. So the name ‘Danny McGee’ popped into my head and I just loved the rhythm of it and started playing around with rhymes that could tell a story.

Is it difficult to write a book in rhyme? What are the challenges?

I love writing in rhyme, it comes very naturally to me. All of my Mr Gum books have at least one rhyming song in there and I often put little rhyming phrases into the narrative too. For me, writing a whole book in rhyme isn’t too difficult – what’s difficult is finding the right idea, something that’s worth telling. Having said that, ‘Danny McGee’ held some particular challenges because I use a very strict rhythmic structure (one that’s quite like some of the Dr Seuss books) and that means that you have to find very succinct ways to tell the story. Not only that, but I gave myself the additional difficulty of only using one rhyme sound – ‘ee’. So it’s McGee, sea, tree, pea, three, tea, glee, etc. I couldn’t even use words like ‘gravy’ because the rhythmic structure means they wouldn’t scan. So yes, that was the challenge. But often, when you find the ‘game’ in writing something, then the challenge becomes fun. For ‘Danny McGee’, the difficulty of what I’d set out to do became a game, and that’s sort of hinted at by the fact that I made up a nonsense word to give myself an extra rhyme, when Danny swallows a ‘swee’. It’s often when you’ve set yourself tight rules that you come up with the best stuff and the funniest ways of getting around those rules.

How is writing picture book different to writing a novel? Did you find one easier than the other?

Picture books are easier to write because they have a simpler through-line and, hey, they’re a lot shorter. But any type of writing is demanding. With picture books you have to come up with the killer idea and then you have to tell it well, and there’s just no space for something to be not quite right – every word has to work very hard, every word has to count. And you pretty much have to have a killer ending too. With ‘Danny’ I wrote about a third of the story in an hour or so and then I got stuck and thought, no, it’s impossible to write a book using one rhyme. A year later I showed it to someone and she said, ‘you have to finish this book!’ so I sat down and gave it another go. It took me about two hours to get the rest of it done. So I like to say that it took me a year and three hours to write ‘Danny McGee Drinks The Sea’. Anyone who thinks writing a picture book is easy probably hasn’t tried to write a picture book. It’s like solving a really difficult and multi-dimensional crossword. (And then there’s the matching up of the words to the pictures and I like to work collaboratively with the artist to get things exactly right. That’s a whole other subject.)

What has the response to the book been so far? Are children and parents delighted?

From what I’ve heard the response has been really good. One mum told me that her kid likes the book so much that he pretends to drink his bathwater to be like Danny. I’m not sure that’s what I want to encourage but it’s quite flattering.

Is there going to be a follow up or is this a standalone book?

I do have an idea for another ‘Danny’ book. Like the first one, I wrote half of it and got stuck. But it’s been about a year now. Maybe it’s time to dust it off and see if I can finish it…

Have you ever drunk the sea?

I’ve drunk tiny bits of it by accident. It’s not very tasty.

Where is your favourite place by the sea?

This is a great question but I haven’t got a great answer. I spent a year in New Zealand and you really feel the presence of the sea and the coastline there. You’re never too far from some rugged coastline with a dramatically crashing sea; or some impossibly beautiful and underpopulated beach. Then again, somewhere like Cornwall where it’s colder and harsher and exciting because you think of old stories about smuggling… I’d like to live by the sea one day but I’ve no idea where.

Can you drink a lot of anything in one go?

When I was at school, a bunch of us would sometimes have eating and drinking contests after home time. It was pretty gross. I was quite good at drinking an entire can of soft drink in one go. These days I’m trying to cut down on the sugar though.

When I read this book out loud to the children in my library they were convinced Danny would either explode from too much water or need a wee desperately. Did either of these outcomes occur to you when writing the book?

No, I didn’t think of either of those things! One of the things you worry about is that the reader will guess the ending of your story before you get there, so I’m glad the kids thought it would go in a different direction, because hopefully the real ending comes as a surprise.

What was your favourite funny book as a child, and what makes you laugh now?

In terms of pure funny, probably The Twits, although I loved the Just William books too. They’re probably the funniest children’s books ever written. A lot of things make me laugh – funny books, films, TV and music. I love silly songs and I’m always coming up with them. Me and my brother have about fifty stupid songs that we’ve made up together and which we sing all the time instead of talking like normal people. Most of the songs aren’t suitable for children though, so that’s enough of that. And cats. Cats are the funniest animal on the planet and I’m glad they’ve taken over the Internet.

Childtastic would like to thank Andy Stanton for his fab answers and Scholastic for asking us to be part of this blog tour.

Make sure you check out tomorrow’s post by Family Book Worms on http://familybookworms.wales/ and VOTE FOR YOUR FAVOURITE laugh out loud title at: www.scholastic.co.uk/lollies/vote!

Posted in general and welcome

If you go down to the woods today…

… you might meet the Minpins!

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Today I am delighted to be reviewing the latest edition of The Minpins, called Billy and the Minpins, illustrated by Quentin Blake and published by Penguin.

I was surprised to discover that The Minpins was Roald Dahl’s last book for children – somehow this fact eluded me until, well, today when I read an interview in the Guardian with Quentin Blake. As part of a dynamic publishing duo with the ever-popular Dahl, this was one book that Blake did not illustrate on first publication – the honour went to Patrick Benson (at the time, Blake was illustrating another of Dahl’s books – Esio Trot).

When Blake was asked to illustrate this new version of The Minpins, he was understandably reluctant, not wanting to tread on another illustrator’s toes. His publisher – Penguin Random House – reassured him that it was to fit in with other books in the Dahl series: Benson’s version had amazing images that could not be scaled down in size to fit in a pocket. So, in 2015, Blake agreed to take on the challenge and what we now have is a beautiful, sympathetic and, in Blake’s inimitably comic style, fascinating reimagining of the original tale.

What the book’s about

Like many fairytale characters that have preceded him, Billy is constantly warned by his mother NOT to go into the woods because, therein, lie dangers such as Whangdoodles, Hornswogglers, Snozzwanglers and Vermicious Knids’. (Yes, you might very well recognise some of these monster names from other Dahl books!) So worried is Billy’s mum, that she does her ironing in the kitchen, while administering occasional reminders of what not to do and asking her son where he is and what he’s doing. Of course, anything forbidden acts like a charm on human curiosity, and Billy eventually succumbs to his desire to see just what is so bad in the deep, dark woods.

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He doesn’t have to wait long, as he is soon terrified by the Gruncher – a monster that has fire inside his belly and who exhales so much smoke that he can’t see in front of him (luckily – or perhaps not – his sense of smell is so acute that he can track his prey with his nose). Billy climbs a tree to escape and stumbles upon a colony of Minpins – tiny people dressed in old-fashioned clothes (Blake says they’re modelled on 17th century garb), who wear suction boots so they can walk wherever they like – and even upside down – on the trees. The leader of the group is Don Mini, who makes it his business to try to help Billy return home without being eaten by the wicked Gruncher.

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I loved this book for all the usual reasons why I adore Roald Dahl. In Billy he has created a daring and disobedient child who’s still likeable – who here hasn’t gone against parental warnings to explore the world around them? Billy might get into an awful scrape but he’s also capable of getting out of it when he creates, in the words of Blackadder’s sidekick Baldrick ‘a cunning plan’. Dahl’s trademark talent for creating new and crazy words is ever evident and children will love the mix of fear and excitement, fun and thrills, that are always part of his stories.

Quentin Blake’s illustrations, as usual, are spot-on – I cannot think of a better author/illustrator pairing. While Benson’s original paintings were beautiful and rather epic in their use of colour and ratio, Blake’s leap off the page with life, creating a different side to the typical fairytale world of ominous threat. Blake’s is a world of fast  action and quick thought, his characters quirky and amusing.

This latest release in the Dahl collection is a must-have for any fans. You will not be disappointed!

Note: I was sent a review copy of Billy and the Minpins by the publisher.