Posted in general and welcome

Blog tour: A Jigsaw of Fire and Stars

Today, I am delighted to kick off the blog tour for Yaba Badoe’s new book A Jigsaw of Fire and Stars, published by Zephyr.

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Fourteen-year-old Sante knows she is special. She has certain powers, talents, that set her apart from most people. She’s an able circus performer who can ride bareback and perform gymnastic tricks on the back of her faithful white stallion Taj. She’s athletic, flexible and fast, both in body and mind. But in addition, she can read other people’s thoughts, and often is aware of sounds, visions and presences that are the ghosts from her past trying to help guide her into the future.

Mama Rose discovers Sante washed up on a beach in a sea chest – the sole survivor of a shipwreck carrying migrants and refugees from Africa – and saves her, adding the little girl to her band of travellers. However, Mama Rose knows that this baby is someone special, not just from the note from her mother but also from the bamboo flute, golden bangle and diamond-encrusted sword that have journeyed with Sante across the ocean. And one day, when two mysterious men appear at one of the circus’s performances, Mama Rose knows it’s time to tell Sante of her past so she can fulfil her destiny.

Yaba Badoe’s novel deftly entwines some of the tropes of the fairy-tale tradition with the tragic realities of Europe’s contemporary migrant situation. Describing with brutal honesty the sight of washed-up bodies of drowned migrants on the beaches of Spain, just metres away from “women tanning themselves”, Badoe doesn’t flinch from presenting the reader with the uncomfortable truth that we’re living in a time where desperation washes up on our shores. As Mama Rose tells Sante about her own journey: “‘From the cargo they bundled into this chest here, your people were rich, Sante… People from Africa. They must have wanted to start a new life over here. If times were bad then, they’re even worse now. Floods, famine, drought … every disaster you can think of, there’s worse to come’.”

A Jigsaw of Fire and Stars is set in southern Spain, and opens with the troupe performing in Cadiz, an area that has seen many migrant landings in recent weeks. Sante has been lucky – she’s had Mama Rose and Priss, her ornithological protectress, watching out for her for over a decade. Now it appears it’s her turn to do something great and the reader has no doubt that Sante is the person to do it. She has the typical traits of a young adult heroine – she’s brave, at time to the point of foolishness, she’s strong-willed and she’s also loyal, although she insists on discovering who her mysterious followers are when Mama Rose would rather she run away with the rest of the troupe to safety. Sante has no hesitation in facing up to her destiny and does so with admirable spirit.  

Yaba Badoe’s writing flows fast and fluently. The story cracks along and the reader is swept into the intrigue at a breathless pace. The dialogue is well written – there are some concessions to Sante’s way of speaking (or writing!) such as dropping letters off the beginning of some words, but this doesn’t get in the way at all or distract – it’s all part of her quick-thinking character. Badoe also manages to evoke a real sense of place in the book – I know this part of Spain well and felt I was travelling alongside Sante during her adventures.

A Jigsaw of Fire and Stars is one of the most interesting and unusual debuts I’ve read for a while. Badoe throws you straight into the action and yet manages to also infuse the story with magical qualities and rhythm that separates it from, for example, the relentless and exhausting fear of the books in The Hunger Games trilogy. The world that Badoe describes in her book is, sadly, very real to any of us who watch or read the news, but the fairy-tale element leaves the reader with the hope that things can change for the better.

A Jigsaw of Fire and Stars is published in hardback on 7 September 2017, priced £10.99: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Jigsaw-Fire-Stars-Yaba-Badoe/dp/1786695480/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1504093743&sr=8-1&keywords=jigsaw+of+fire+and+stars

and Head of Zeus: http://headofzeus.com/books/jigsaw-fire-and-stars

Follow Yaba Badoe on Twitter: @yaba_badoe

Follow Leo Nickolls (illustrator) on Twitter: @leonickolls

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Posted in general and welcome

And the moral of the story is…?

There’s an interesting debate happening on Twitter this morning regarding a recent study which claims that, according to the Guardian’s headline, “Only children’s books with humans have moral impact.” (You can read the rest of the article here.)

The study was conducted by the University of Toronto’s Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) and focused on the likelihood of young children sharing with their peers after listening to a book about sharing. Lead academic, Patricia Ganea, revealed that “the type of story characters significantly affected whether children became more or less inclined to behave pro-socially. After hearing the story containing real human characters, young children became more generous. In contrast, after hearing the same story but with anthropomorphised animals or a control story, children became more selfish.”

This has come as a shock to all of us familiar with, for example, Aesop’s Fables – traditional fodder given to children to warn them to be nice to others and avoid  antisocial behaviour. Additionally, many of the books I read aloud from in my Library storytime sessions are based on animals and I have very interesting discussions with the children about any underlying messages. Take, for example, Duncan Beedie’s book The Bear Who Stared – a tale about a shy bear who’s rather scary and overBEARing (pardon the pun) in his attempts to make new friends. Too tongue-tied to speak, he stares at whoever he comes across until they move on or shout at him to go away.

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A wise frog opens his eyes to the error of his ways and helps the bear become a more sociable being.

When I read to the children at school, I often stop at key points and ask them what is happening, why a character might feel a certain way, and what they could do about it to make things better. The children had no difficulty identifying what the issues were with the bear and had plenty of suggestions about how to make things better.

Arguably, children can deal with issues that are explored through the animal world better than in the human one. For example, there are excellent children’s books dealing with grief by looking at it from an animal’s perspective, including Badger’s Parting Gifts, by Susan Varley, in which the titular Badger prepares his animal friends for his impending death. I think the success of books like this lies in the fact that children are seeing human emotions through the eyes of an animal and, therefore, they are one step removed from their own experience; a parent portrayed doing similar things might be too traumatic for child readers.

Teaching children about emotions and morals can be a tricky area: you don’t want to lecture or distress. Using animals is a useful way to get round this issue as Tracey Corduroy comments in Alison Flood’s piece, “the slight distancing that this affords the young child does a number of important things. It softens the moral message a little, making it slightly more palatable. Some would feel that this waters it down and makes it less effective. But the initial ‘saving-face’ that using animals brings quite often results, I feel at least, in keeping a child reader engaged.”

In a way, you could argue that picture books featuring animals are similar to fairy tales, if you are looking to attribute some sort of moral function to them. Fairy talesaccording to Freudian psychoanalysts and academics such as Bruno Bettelheim, are essential to children’s moral and emotional development precisely because all the dreadful events happen in a world that isn’t anything like the child’s own (unless of course there are talking wolves, magic death apples and dragons etc in your neighbourhood). The child experiences the actions one step removed and therefore can process all the emotions – fear, anger, sadness – in a non-threatening way. (Bruno Bettelheim’s The Uses of Enchantment makes for excellent reading even if some of his theories are WAY out there!)

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I must say that, as a Librarian, I often look to picture books to discuss a difficult subject. At school we have children who come from homes where there are difficulties in the families of which the children are inevitably aware – depression, self-harm, eating disorders, divorce, etc. I’ve searched, in vain, for picture books that deal with these issues in a helpful way. There are ones that focus on child psychology, with humans as characters. They look unappealing, are poorly illustrated and written in a dull way. They are meant to teach and, boy, does the reader know it. In this case, I will always, always, look to see if I can find a better alternative in a ‘proper’ picture book that I can use instead. Unfortunately there aren’t many around for some of the deeper things, but I can honestly say that there is a desperate need for these!

And if I can add more fodder to the fire, I’d like to point out some excellent books on autism and other conditions, written for autistic children, which have – shock horror – animals as protagonists! For example:

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These books are a Godsend because they explain emotions and conditions in a fun and non-threatening way. Even children who do not have these conditions love looking at these books, which is great because they, then, learn about the struggles their friends and classmates may have and why they behave in certain ways.

To conclude – I can’t say I agree with these findings and have questions of mine own about the research. For example, I wonder which books the researchers used, for example, and how they were read aloud as that can, in itself, have a huge impact to a child’s reaction. Any book that is read with sensitivity to the text and images can create massive discussion, whereas the best book in the world, read aloud badly, can bore and turn listeners off. I think the researchers have raised interesting points, but they need much further discussion if they stand any chance of dethroning evidence that has stood children’s literature in good stead for many years.

Posted in general and welcome

Artistic licence? Ask Crocodali!

Today’s book review is of Crocodali, by Lucy Volpin, published by Templar.

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Little children love art and picture books and the gift that Crocodali,  by Lucy Volpin, offers is a mixture of the two!

Can you guess what or who Crocodali is? I expect so… a mixture of a Crocodile with aspirations to be Dali. In this book, he starts off by being far too busy to talk to the reader or indeed even sign an autograph… until he finds it rather difficult to sort out his canvas. At this point, he enlists the reader’s help – can you just move it a bit to the right… and the left… .

Soon the child is having a great time shaking, turning and waiting in excitement to see what has been created in Crocodali’s studio. Often the presence of a blank canvas might be too much temptation not to get the crayons or pens out (I know I was dying to colour something in at the beginning and end) so you may find your copy drawn on sooner rather than later. But it’s a fun and engaging way to get children interested both in reading and art and the action required to read the book is particularly suitable for fidgety children who find sitting still just a little too dull.

I shall be reading this at school with the children when we go back, and I think I will use it alongside other related books – perhaps some of Salvador Dali’s wacky creations or James Mayhew’s gorgeous Katie picture books, which look at art in wonderfully original and interesting ways.

 Please note that I received a review copy of Crocodali by Templar.

Posted in general and welcome

Dream a little dream…

Today’s review is of Dreamweaver, by Claire Freedman and Carrie May, published by Templar.

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I shouldn’t have sat down to read Claire Freedman’s newest picture book on a damp, dark August day. I was already sleepy, craving the warmth of my duvet (I repeat, IN AUGUST!), and by the end, and with the help of Carrie May’s beautiful drawings, I was ready for bed.

Claire Freedman is better known for her Alien Love Underpants series, but this title marks a new direction for the bestselling author. Instead of zany humour, this picture book looks at the dreamy Dreamweaver, who travels the earth and the skies, searching for wonderful dreams to add to her sack and give to little ones who are struggling to get settled. She’s a fairy-like version of the Big Friendly Giant, without the threat of any nasties!

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The book is written in verse which is lullaby-like in nature, and Freedman’s heavy use of the ‘s’ sound in her words helps to create a sleepy, relaxing feel. Carrie May’s illustrations are as comforting as the words, creating gentle worlds of magic. Children will love the different settings the Dreamweaver visits to gather her dreams and the colours that bring them to life.

A lovely, comforting bedtime read that will be popular with little ones who are partial to a gentle lullaby at bedtime.

Please note that while I was sent a copy for review, the views expressed here are entirely my own.

Posted in general and welcome, picture books

This cow didn’t jump over the moon – he came down from it!

Tonight’s review is of Nadia Shireen’s excellent and hilarious picture book The Cow Who Fell to Earth, published by Penguin.

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I prefaced the reading of this book to my Key Stage 1 children with the warning on the back cover: ‘This book is very silly’. They giggled and their eyes lit up. Silly is good.

Why would a cow fall to Earth? This is the question the sheep must be asking themselves in this story when a young calf, appearing first as a fast, flying star, lands in their field. The poor little cow is rather baffled and stunned when he lands, so the sheep do what one assumes British sheep would do in an emergency – they offer him a cup of tea.

After this, they encourage their visitor to tell them his story, which he does in great detail. The problem is that the sheep can’t understand a word the cow is saying, and not because he’s mooing. Nope – he’s Wooing. Bertha the cow is consulted to see if she can shed any light on matters but wooing doesn’t mean anything to her either.

And just when it looks like things can’t get any worse, a naughty chicken steals the cows jet pack and shoots into space. How will Woo get back to where he belongs?

This story had the children in stitches of laughter. They joined in with the wooing and baaing with great aplomb, and tried to predict how the story would end (I think the idea that the sheep would manage to purloin or build another jet pack was one of the most mooted solution – sorry for the pun). We used the story to talk about other tales involving cows and moons – it heartened me to hear that they still know the old rhyme about the cow jumping over the moon. Although they did insist that the moon was NOT made of cheese but rocks. Scientific explanations are now very much in the minds of the youngest of children.

Nadia Shireen has a real talent for combining funny words with engaging pictures. The children loved her previous book – Bumblebear – equally, and she has a knack for knowing what will tickle their funny bone. The animals are cute but not too much so, and their predicaments hilarious but comfortingly resolved. We look forward to reading more from her!

Posted in general and welcome, picture books

Stuff and nonsense

Tonight’s review is of Big Brown Bear’s Cave, by Yuval Zommer, published by Templar

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Look at the gorgeous fellow who came with the book!

I love the dedication Yuval Zommer has written in the front of his new picture book:

‘Dedicated to all the kids who barely tidy their rooms.’

I admit I used to be one of those kids, and my husband will, I am sure, pipe up that I am still one when he reads this review.

Big Brown Bear is on the hunt for the perfect home. Well, not explicitly at the beginning – he’s just taking a stroll but then he sees a cave that looks pretty perfect for him so he decides to move in straight away (perhaps it’s a second home). The problem is that the cave doesn’t really feel like home so he carries on his way until he discovers HUMAN CAVES! And, being human, they weren’t just large, dark spaces like bear caves (though they were dusty), they had STUFF in them. Everywhere.

Big Brown Bear comes to the conclusion that where he’s going wrong in his interior design is lack of STUFF so he sets about gathering things for his own cave, particularly anything with handles, wheels or that comes in boxes. He vows to not stop until he has filled every space.

In short, Big Brown Bear has become a hoarder.

Everyone wants to see this Aladdin’s Cave of STUFF but the problem is – you guessed it – there is no space for visitors. And then Big Brown Bear can’t join his friends on a fishing trip because he gets stuck amongst the STUFF (I must say that however bad I am this has never happened to me).

It’s a good thing that Bear has friends who are adept at pulling from all directions because they free him and then help him have a clearance, returning all the STUFF to the human caves. (So if you ever notice large amounts of items go missing from your garage, it could be down to a bear thief.)

Will Big Brown Bear (BBB) finally feel at home?

This book captivated the children at school – they knew before BBB what trouble he was heading towards and chuckled at his silliness. The illustrations are gorgeous and full of colour, texture and movement, and somehow convey BBB’s clumpiness without looking… clumpy (if that makes any sense). The humour is gentle and clear and while the pages are full of STUFF (illustrations!) the text is easy to find and read (I’m not a big fan of writing that goes in all sorts of directions and changes font – it muddles me).

Will this book encourage untidy children to put their STUFF away? I don’t know. My room hasn’t seen an improvement (sorry, Carl). But they do say that a tidy house or room means a tidy mind so maybe I should give it a go.

Now, where did I put that vacuum cleaner?

Please note that Templar sent me a review copy of this book.

Posted in general and welcome, picture books

Introducing Mr Right (and Left…)

Today sees the publication of the picture book Mr Left & Mr Right by Daniel Fehr and Celeste Aire, published TODAY by Bonnier/Templar.

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Sometimes looking for Mr Right isn’t about looking for ‘the One’. It’s about learning the difference between your left and right and this picture book is just the thing to do it. It’s an ingenious concept dreamt up by board-game designer Daniel Fehr, and his geometrically-delighted illustrator Celeste Aires to help children tell the difference between the two sides, although this isn’t a specifically stated aim on the publicity material. But as I read through the book, and had great fun playing with the various flaps, I realised what an amazing resource this would be for parents teaching their children (or even themselves – many adults struggle with this problem) how to tell right from left.

The storyline at its most basic is this: Mr Left and Mr Right are desperate to meet but they can’t find their way over to each other’s side. They try everything – jumping, climbing, digging … but they just can’t bridge that gap. Until Mr Right (well, it had to be him really, didn’t it?) has an idea.

Children will have a great time playing with this book (if they can wrestle it away from the adults). The story is simple but amusing, the images are gorgeously bright and inviting. The paper is also sturdy enough to withstand a lot of playing with and I imagine this book will be one that children will return to time and time again.

Often, I donate the books I receive to our school library, but I think this one will remain on my bookshelves for a while longer… just in case I can’t remember which one is Mr Right…

Please note that while I received a copy of this book for review purposes, the views I have expressed are entirely my own.