Posted in general and welcome, picture books

Wind and rain …

Monday marked the start of Spring, not that you would have known, with the horrendous wind and rain we had. However, it was good timing to look at the two new books published by the Bodleian Library, whose subject matter was very fitting for the tempestuous and temperamental British weather.

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The March Wind, by Inez Rice and Vladimir Bobri, takes a creative look at what happens when ‘The little boy’ (we never know his name) discovers an abandoned hat in a puddle in the gutter. The boy has been exploring for some time before he comes across the hat and he wonders why it stays still when everything else he’s tried to pick up has been snatched away by the March wind. The boy succeeds in putting the hat on his head but is amazed at how heavy it is, probably because it is weighed down by rainwater.

With the new hat on his head, The Little Boy is free to imagine all sorts of things he could be: soldier, cowboy, bandit, judge and a song-and-dance man. But while he is lost in his imaginary world, a stern, loud voice asks him: “Where did you get that hat?”

The Little Boy realises that the hat he has been playing with belongs to the March Wind, who definitely wants it back now. Without the hat for bravery (he no longer can imagine himself as a soldier or a cowboy, etc) his knees knock in terror, until the Wind thanks him for picking it up. He can relax and enjoy the adventure he has experienced, but wonders if anyone will ever believe what really happened that wet and windy March day.

This is a charming book about the power of imagination and the freedom that it gives young children in creating wonderful worlds of their own with only a simple prop for help. When I asked the children in the library what they could use a hat for, the answers were proof of their creativity – a bath for a baby, a bucket for water, a pair of underpants (if you cut holes in the right places), or a toy sailboat. Their attention was held by Bobri’s lively pictures, full of contrasting colours and shades and shadows – they particularly picked out the expressions of the March Wind when it came to claim its hat back. When I asked them if they believed the March Wind was real, most of them shook their head – it was obviously a leap too far – but they liked the idea of what it did in the story. As we looked out at the trees waving in the wind, and the rain hammering down on the window, we couldn’t think of a better day on which to read this book, and the next in the Bodleian’s releases.

The Rain Puddle, by Adelaide Holl and Roger Duvoisin

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It all starts with a plump hen picking and pecking in the meadow grass until she comes across a rain puddle in the yard. When she peers into it, she sees another plump little hen looking back at her and panics: “A plump little hen has fallen into the water!” The hen rushes off and asks her friend the turkey to take a look. But what should the turkey see?

Yes, you’ve guessed correctly: another turkey, not a chicken. The turkey goes off in distress and tells a fat pig munching apples about the plight of the gobbly bird… and so it continues until more or less all of the farm is looking into the rain puddle and seeing another farm of animals apparently trapped inside the water.

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They run around in alarm and, in the resulting melee, the sun comes out, dries up the puddle, and the animals think that their counterparts have managed to escape. The only animal who has not been fooled is the owl (of course) who chuckles at the scene in front of him.

The children I read this to knew from the start that the animals were seeing their own reflection but this didn’t take away from the comedy of the piece. They enjoyed making the appropriate animal noises to go with each creature (just as well as, with a cold and only half a voice, I wasn’t up to it) and explained to me that owls are always wise. When I asked them why, one child suggested that it was because of their big eyes that see everything. The story’s bright, cheerful pictures kept the children entertained and added even more humour to the story (particularly the massive rain puddle and the blueish-grey sheep).

The book is a great way to talk about animals with very young children, and to engage them with the story by asking them to make the noises. On a very basic level you can also talk about science subjects such as reflections and evaporation. My audience knew all about these topics (clever lot) and decided to teach me about them.

Both books are perfect for this time of year, although we’re nearly through March, so you had better get a copy quick!

Posted in general and welcome, picture books

Odd Dog Out Fits Right In

Remember your school days when it was essential to fit in? To a certain extent, the same is true of adulthood, though perhaps we have more resilience and courage to be different with a few more years under our belts. Nevertheless, there is always pressure to be one of the gang no matter who you are, so imagine what it must feel like if you’re a sausage dog with a quirky dress sense and personality. Award-winning author and illustrator Rob Biddulph has done just that in his new, hilarious book Odd Dog Out (published by HarperCollins Children’s Books).

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Amongst scenes of countless dachshunds wearing suits, driving cars, and playing football in the same kit, our heroine Odd Dog is rather fond of her rainbow scarves and bobble hat, playing her electric guitar while the others choose the violin.

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But soon the pressure mounts and she decides to leave the place she has always called home in search of somewhere where she won’t stand out from the crowd. After journeying far and wide, she discovers such a place: Fabulous Doggywood. At last she can blend in and feel at ease… until she finds someone else who looks out of place and who doesn’t seem to mind in the slightest.

Odd Dog Out is immediately appealing to the eye with its vibrant colours and incredible attention to detail. How he managed to include so many dachshunds on one page is a mystery – and a delight – to me, and the children I read the book to loved them. They were even more excited at the end of the book when more dogs decide to break rank and show their individuality. This can be the basis for excellent and creative activities – there is a downloadable Odd Dog template on Rob Biddulph’s website, along with other fun things: http://www.robbiddulph.com/downloads We did this in school and the children decorated their dogs with all sorts of accessories!

The book is also great for discussions on individuality. How important is it to be who you are rather than who you think you should be? How are you different to other people?

Whether you use this for that reason or just for fun, you’re sure to enjoy this book. It flew off the shelf the moment I put it on display, and you can’t hope for better than that.

Posted in general and welcome, picture books

Will Mabbitt can only draw worms… or can he?

There are many books that I wish I had written, but I’ve just come across a picture book that I wish I had drawn. And that’s saying something considering I am about as good with a pencil as Mr Bean is with, well, anything. The book in question is I Can Only Draw Worms by Will Mabbitt, published by Puffin.

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The title says it all, really. The author/illustrator admits that the only thing he can draw is worms and they’re the only things that appear on the pages, apart from a pair of glasses, so you can distinguish Worm 2 from Worm 1 (they’re both an attractive shade of neon pink). Worm 3 appears in yellow, but when you ask yourselves or the eager children around you why that might be it’s not for identification purposes. Nope – Mabbitt lost his pink pen. There you go.

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The rest of the book follows in a similar vein, teasing the children with promises of pictures of adventures then showing worms instead. A worm riding a unicorn? Yes please! But then we have to suffice with one worm riding on the back of another. This didn’t frustrate my young audience though – they all fell about laughing. The next time Mabbitt played the same trick, some fell for it again, some knew what was coming but they all enjoyed it regardless.

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Books like these show how, often, the simplest of ideas can be the best. A missing worm who needed the loo and another worm whose fate is best left unmentioned here can have children entranced and delighted so this book works on all levels. It’s also great for teaching or reinforcing counting skills so it really is an all-rounder.

We did a lunchtime activity in the library based on the book and the children enjoyed drawing their own worms and giving them colours; rainbows proved popular. We stuck them on lolly sticks to make them wiggle even more!

By the way, the most popular worms in the book were 2, 3 and 8 (or 8.5…).

 

 

Posted in general and welcome

When author asides don’t work

One of the great things about being an adult reading children’s books to children is seeing their reaction to the stories they hear. It’s something of a paradox that most people who write or draw for children are grown-up – this discrepancy between ages doesn’t tend to happen, to my knowledge, in other areas of fiction – and it’s a topic that we touched upon at times in my MA in Children’s Literature. This is why it takes a truly exceptional author to be attuned to what children want to read about and the kind of language that works best.

Most of the books I read aloud to the children at school hit the spot but I came across one the week before last that didn’t sit right – with me or them. It was a lovely book – beautifully illustrated and focusing on a very relevant subject for children. The book was The Dark by Lemony Snicket, illustrated by Jon Klassen.

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As you can probably guess, this book is about what it says in the title. Little Laszlo, our hero, is afraid of the Dark (personified in this story) and visits it every day in its place in the hope that it doesn’t visit him at night in his bedroom.

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As the little cliffhanger in the picture above shows, the Dark did visit Laszlo one night. From this point on, the Dark challenges Laszlo to ‘come closer’ to where the Dark normally lives – in the basement and the little boy must be brave to discover what it is the Dark wants from him.

From the beginning of the book to the point where Laszlo is about to make the pivotal discovery, this reads like a suspense story. Klassen’s beautifully stark illustrations draw the reader in as much (possibly more) than Snicket’s words. However, at this key juncture, Snicket interrupts his previously pared-down  narrative approach to give his reader a one-page address:

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(Apologies for the terrible resolution on this – I couldn’t get my camera to work properly…)

Now, every time I came to this page, with every year group I read this to, their previously rapt attention wavered. Their eyes started looking elsewhere, the fidgeting started, a few whispers were heard. It was as if someone had switched off the lights suddenly.

As the person reading this, I also felt uncomfortable. I’d followed the rhythm of the book, enjoying the build-up, whipping them up into a state of nail-biting anticipation (OK, a little hyperbole there, but never mind) and then poured cold water over them by making them listen to a page of text that was completely different in style to the rest of the book. It was the equivalent of showing an audience the film ‘Jaws’ and -at the moment when you’re wondering if the saviours are going to capture the massive beast or become shark food – sliding in a Jacques Cousteau documentary on sharks (you can watch an interesting one here).

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After my third distracted group, I tried a different tactic with the fourth; I read the book and omitted that page. Bingo. The story worked brilliantly – suspense was maintained and the children enjoyed it to the end. Then we had a discussion about the dark afterwards – raising the sort of points Snicket does on that whole-pager. Because they are good points but they feel desperately in the wrong place. I am intrigued, actually, to know why that editorial decision was made.

So it got me wondering about author asides. Even with a popular and well-loved writer, are they good things? Is it a question of location, location, location? Or is it best to let the story tell itself?

Over to you…

 

Posted in general and welcome

When beards become homes

I can’t quite convey how excited I was when I received Duncan Beedie’s new picture book The Lumberjack’s Beard.

A fan of his previous book – The Bear Who Stared – I knew that I would be in for a treat with this title … and boy, was I right.

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Big Jim Hickory is a hardworking lumberjack. He’s so good at his job that he soon deforests vast swathes of land near his log cabin, annoying various forest creatures in the process. Three of these – a bird, a beaver and a porcupine – take issue with him for destroying their homes, so he allows them to live in his beard, until it all becomes too much and orders them to leave. But, as the animals remind him, he’s taken away their woodland homes so where will they end up living?

All the children I read this book to – from Reception to Year 2 – loved this. The repeated actions Big Jim goes through every morning, from his ‘limbering-up exercises’ to cooking his massive stack of pancakes, had them chanting along, especially when I rubbed my chin and they said in unison, “his big bristly chin!” . The bold, bright illustrations held their gaze as we travelled through the book and no one fidgeted or became bored. Praise indeed!

I love using books that I can then use for literacy and art activities in the Library and this book had loads of possibilities. First of all, I used it as a basis for considering non-fiction topics such as natural habitats (we looked at a book about where forest animals live, and the special names for their homes) and environmentalism. We discussed how we use trees, why we need them and what might happen if we don’t look after them (including rainforests in this). With Key Stage 1, I got them to draw animals that live in forests that could become endangered if the trees disappear, and we produced a display of Big Jim and a menagerie of animals, birds, living etc in his beard! I beefed this up with some facts about trees and how it’s important to look after them to get the children thinking about how important it is to protect our woodland friends.

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(And, yes, it took ages to make that massive beard!)

Our friends at Templar Publishing also send along a packet of Big Jim Hickory’s fir tree seeds with our review copy, so our school’s gardening club spent one afterschool session planting the seeds. They are now taking very good care of them – keeping them in the school fridge and watering them as per instructions. The plan is to plant them in the school allotment when they’re ready. Naomi, a girl in Year 2, wrote a lovely piece about this which we have displayed – check it out below.

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Sandra, the Year 5 TA who also runs the Gardening Club, then suggested we use the book with Year 5 when they came to the Library. At first, we had moans from some of the boys who said, “We’re not BABIES!” – shocked at the thought of having a picture book read to them. So we said we’d challenge their opinions on picture books and talked about what Key Stage 1 had done with the story. Soon, I couldn’t stop the older children from telling me everything they knew about deforestation, where animals live, and a whole raft of things that I didn’t even know about. Half an hour soon passed and we could easily have talked about it more. Did the book change their minds about whether something like this is just for ‘babies’? Absolutely. They were as fascinated by events as the smaller children, and are going to come back next week to write a review.

So this book isn’t just about a big man with burly shoulders named Jim Hickory. It’s a comedy and it’s also an invitation to think about our environment. Not in a preachy, worthier-than-thou way, but in a manner that encourages debate, ideas and, basically a lot of fun. Especially if you throw in the limbering-up exercises.
Please note that while we received a copy of this book for review, the opinions expressed here are entirely our own.
Posted in general and welcome

Rethinking morals

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As many of you already know, I work as a primary school librarian in Oxford. Ours is  a Church of England Aided Primary School, and much of our daily life revolves around supporting and celebrating Christian values, and we focus on a particular one each month – this month’s, for example, is honesty.

Last week, I started preparing a display board (above) with the idea of linking the our values to ones found in the teachings of Christ. My aim was to show the children that good messages are often found in many of the non-religious books we read – and children’s books are a particularly good example of this. How many times have you read a picture book, for example, that features friendship or love or thoughtfulness as its main themes?

I didn’t want to restrict this to picture books, though; it was important for the older children to realise that they can find these messages in chapter books, too. So I tried to bring together a diverse range of books to exemplify the values we are celebrating this year as a school, which are:

  • love (The Happy Prince, by Oscar Wilde)
  • forgiveness (Black Beauty, by Anna Sewell)
  • hope (The Mozart Question, by Michael Morpurgo)
  • respect (Mr Stink, by David Walliams)
  • team-work (The Gigantic Turnip, by Aleksei Tolstoy)
  • kindness & generosity (A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens)
  • honesty (Pinocchio, by Carlo Collodi)
  • courage (The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, by L. Frank Baum)

Finding examples of love, hope, respect, team-work, kindness and generosity and courage were pretty easy. There are so many books about children and animal families where love and kindess rule, and where characters share their things even if they’re reluctant at first (they learn a lesson in the course of the story). Team-work is a biggie too – selfishness and self-sufficiency aren’t particularly lauded in children’s books which, in the case of the latter, isn’t necessarily a good thing. A certain amount of resourcefulness is helpful at any age, as long as you’re not hurting others in the process. Take Roald Dahl’s Matilda, for example. Where would she have been if she hadn’t taken matters into her own hands?

The value that presented the most difficulty for me was honesty – apart from a few old folktales or fairy tales (The Boy Who Cried Wolf, for example) and Pinocchio, I was struggling to think of books that promoted this virtue. However, I could think of many that featured, shall we say, bending the truth as a way to solve a problem. I suppose you could classify these books as examples of resourcefulness but there is blatant lying going on in them for the main character to either achieve their goal or get out of a sticky situation. Not that I am condemning these books – some of them are my favourites, but it’s a curious observation.

A couple of examples that came to mind, easily, were:

  • The Gruffalo – in which the mouse has to tell tall tales to save himself from being the monster’s next meal
  • Lion vs Rabbit – a hilarious story in which a nasty bully of a lion is defeated by the smallest animal around through deception
  • Goldilocks and the Three Bears – this is an older tale, of course, but it features a little girl who breaks into a house, eats strangers’ food, breaks their furniture and sleeps in their beds. Depending on which version you read (and their ultimate aim) Goldilocks either escapes, is eaten by the Bears or has some other form of punishment imposed on her
  • Matilda – this poor, neglected girl has to lie to her parents about where she spends her time and where she gets her books… but it’s still a lie!

The reason why books like these are so popular with children, I believe, is because the character that is bigger and stronger (and possibly older in their minds) is put in its place or defeated by the smaller, weaker (and possibly younger) character. It’s a role reversal of parental authority over children. They love laughing at how a quick-thinking little’un gets the better of a scarier but stupider authority figure. I can’t blame them.

Perhaps we could look at it from another angle, and suggest that these protagonists are showing signs of courage, which was another of our virtues. But does using one virtue over another make it  OK?

I am of course reading too far into this, and only just as a semi-religious/ philosophical exercise. Some of my favourite children’s books are downright silly, cheeky and sometimes rude. But it’s interesting to think that perhaps children’s literature is doing a bit of a full circle at the moment. When children listened to fairy tales, they heard stories we wouldn’t dream of telling our children. Little Red Riding Hood wasn’t just at risk of being eaten in some of the earliest fireside tellings, while Snow White enjoyed violent revenge over her wicked stepmother. During Victorian times, children’s stories took on more of a moral approach and the salacious details of the past were dropped. Nowadays, I don’t think we’ll become as bloodthirsty as pre-Victorians but we’re allowing mischievous children and animals to get the better of their betters and empowering them in ways perhaps never seen before.

Can you suggest some good examples of books related to the values listed above? I’d love to hear your suggestions.

 

Posted in general and welcome

My Top Christmas Read

With only a day left before Christmas, I thought I’d better announce my top Christmas read for 2016. So, without further ado, I am delighted to announce that it is…

Mistletoe and Murder, by Robin Stevens, Published by Puffin Books

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When a review copy of this book came through the door, I was so excited. I love a good mystery at any time of the year, but Christmas is particularly suitable for a ‘whodunnit’ and Robin Stevens doesn’t disappoint with this fifth instalment in the wonderful Murder Most Unladylike series.

In a nutshell, our amateur sleuths Daisy Wells and Hazel Wong are spending the Christmas hols in Cambridge with Daisy’s brother Bertie. Hazel is excited to see the city’s beautiful spires, cosy libraries and yummy tearooms – but, as is always the case with Daisy and Hazel, murder is never far off in the Maudlin College’s dark and dangerous stairwells. As soon as the girls arrive, they’re aware of tension between twin brothers, whose pranks are rapidly getting out of hand. They suspect murder is not far off but then something unexpected happens that completely battles the amateur sleuths.

This series is a joy to read if, like me, you love the quaintness of Agatha Christie combined with the tension of mysteries. Daisy’s and Hazel’s world is one of respectability and tea (and cakes) but there is always the suggestion of something ugly lurking under the surface, and these two girls can’t wait to use their wits to solve crimes. Rather like Enid Blyton’s Famous Five, wherever they go, something dastardly is waiting to happen and it’s up to the two to catch the criminal. Stevens’s writing is funny, engaging, light and eminently satisfying, without feeling insubstantial. The story cracks along at a swift pace, throwing the girls into detective mode very early on and keeping the suspense going. I loved reading it and I know the children in my Library will too (once I hand it over… ).