Picture Book Reviews · Picture Books

Review: Jazz Dog by Marie Voigt.

Review: Jazz Dog by Marie Voigt.

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Cats and dogs are divided. Dogs are powerful and play one music. There is one dog who doesn’t fit in anywhere, until one night he is called by the siren song of the jazz cat band. This is his music. This is where he belongs. Then the cats at the club shut the door in his face.

Undeterred, the dog goes about teaching himself everything he can about jazz music. He ignores all the bad comments and practices every hour of the day and dreams of the day when cats and dogs will stand united.

A charming story about diversity, individuality and respecting everyone regardless of their music style.

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Jazz Dog recognises what cats have to offer. Cats have a whole style of music that dogs barely know about. Cats have cool rhythms and sounds that dogs need to learn. Although the focus is on Jazz Dog, really this is about two separate communities and the need for one to accept the other. This would tie in beautifully with the history of the jazz era. Jazz didn’t heal all the atrocities of segregation in America but it did bring some communities together. And recognising common ground is a very important first step in breaking down other barriers. Jazz music helped to fuel the civil rights movements and some very important musicians broke new ground by refusing to play to segregated audiences.

Jazz Dog is a gentle story that allows young readers to discuss some of the issues involved in this history. Why are the dogs and cats separate in the first place? Is Jazz Dog a hero or is he just the first to listen to a whole group of cats? How might music and other art help to break divisions? Thinking about this in the boundaries of a fictional story can help readers to think more deeply when they approach the real history.

The illustrations shine with Voigt’s usual attention to detail. Her cityscapes contrast the bleak and dingy spaces with life and sparkle. Think the reflection of neon lights in a puddle or the stars behind a block of highrises. 

Another great hit from Voigt with a message for everyone to listen to. 

 

Thanks to OUP Children’s Books for my copy of Jazz Dog. Opinions my own.

 

Picture Book Reviews · Picture Books

Review: Caspian Finds A Friend by Jacqueline Véssid. Illustrated by Merrilees Brown.

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Caspian lives in a lighthouse by the sea. Every day he casts his light out over the waves in search of a friend, but nobody comes. One day he finds a bottle. Inside is a piece of paper with a word written on it. Caspian finds his boat, races out to sea and goes in search of the message writer. What – or who – he finds at the other end comes as a big surprise. A big, polar bear-shaped suprise.

A beautiful tale that would make a great companion read for Lost And Found.

This gentle story won my instant affection. It is about a lonely boy who puts his trust in a message and reaches out to find out who is there. It makes a beautiful metaphor for friendships, especially those early childhood friendships forged in the playground which could begin with a phrase as simple as ‘will you play with me?’ Sometimes it can be hard to trust a new person, and when we set out we have no idea what will come of it, but this story reminds us that beautiful things may be at the other end.

It also brings to live the adventures which can be had on a beach or by the sea. 

The illustrations are stunning, especially in the numerous ways they find to show the sea. From a pale blue wash with white foam to an inky flat surface with fish hidden below, the pictures remind us that there is more than one way to see a thing. I love the use of texture and the way we can almost see the water moving as the boy plays in it. 

I also love the design – the use of white space and the way the page layout changes as the polar bear leaps forward into Caspian’s life. 

A gentle and memorable book which reminds us that friendship is an adventure and that trust is a leap of faith worth taking. 

 

Thanks to Chronicle Books for my gifted copy of Caspian Finds A Friend. Opinions my own.

Picture Book Reviews · Picture Books

Review: The Wind In The Wall by Sally Gardner. Illustrated by Rovina Cai.

Review: The Wind In The Wall by Sally Gardner. Illustrated by Rovina Cai.

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Tap – tap – tap. 

A young man has waited out the years, trapped inside the walls. He was once, long ago, a gardener for the Duke of Northumberland. The young man and the Duke shared an admiration for the amaryllis, and the young man had hoped he would rise through the ranks to become Head Gardener. 

Then the pineapple reached Britain. The gentry were besotted. 

Pushed aside, the young man watches as a stranger appears at the house with claims to charm the pineapples. The young man knows a charlatan when he sees one, and yet he wants to know the stranger’s secret. What he witnesses has consequences that will last for centuries. 

A subtle and touching ghost story from Sally Gardner. 

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The setting of the old estate is made magical by the knowledge that a man became trapped in the walls for centuries. Sally Gardner’s stories often feel this way – as if we know the setting intimately and yet at the same time we know nothing at all, because anything might happen. The result is that we are firmly in the hands of the storyteller as we wait for all to be revealed. 

What the young man discovers will stay with the reader for life. The harmony between the words and the pictures, especially at this moment, is stunning. 

The story is something between a ghost story and a time-slip. The young man is left haunting the walls long after the other characters have gone. 

If you fancy a ghost story this autumn but want something free from gore and gimmick, this one is for you. My favourite kind of ghost stories are rooted firmly in real-life stories (albeit with the occasional pinch of magic thrown in). The terror doesn’t necessarily have to come from the undead, and it certainly shouldn’t come from the fact that ‘it’s a ghost’ alone. The Wind In The Wall ticks all my boxes with its strong back story and the chemistry between the characters. 

Rovina Cai’s illustrations tell the emotional story. The passion on the protagonist’s face as he tends the amaryllis is replaced with creeping darkness which begins with the pineapples. The illustrations tell the story by themselves and they add extra layers to the words.  

A striking read around Halloween and a timeless story that could be read at any time of year. 

 

Thanks to Hot Key Books for my copy of The Wind In The Walls. Opinions my own.

Picture Book Reviews · Picture Books

Review: The House Of Madame M by Clothilde Perrin.

Review: The House Of Madame M by Clothilde Perrin.

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Are you lost? Come in! 

Welcome to The House Of Madame M, where things slither and creak and nothing is as it seems. There are skeletons in the cupboards – real ones – and clawed things in the corners and the food in the kitchen would literally kill. 

This pop-up book is a delight for the insatiably gothic. With doors to open and dials to turn, it is super hands-on. The illustrations are rich in detail. As well as playing with the interactive features, the reader is kept busy scanning over the page and taking in the surprises. 

For surprises there are. It seems a shame to spoil any more, but I jumped once or twice as I came across things I hadn’t seen at the first glance. 

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Four or five lines accompany each spread, giving the impression that someone – or some creeping, crawling thing – has been charged with giving the reader a guided tour. The implication is that, once a person enters the house, they can never ever leave. 

My interest in this was particularly as a pop-up. There’s something about pop-up books. Perhaps they remind us that storytelling can take so many different forms. They break the rules, almost, by giving the reader so much authority over what moves when and in what order things are explored. Anybody who had a pop-up book in childhood will gravitate towards them in a second-hand bookshop, even if they don’t intend to buy. This format lends itself well to the gothic and unruly world of Madame M. There’s something compelling about playing with the illustrations while being guided through the book by the unearthly narrator. 

I love the use of dark and light. The eye is drawn to the patches of yellow and then to the details within them. The use of texture is also exciting, especially to bring the monsters to life. 

Both trick and treat at the same time. With added surprise value. A lovely creation that will excite readers this Halloween. 

 

The House Of Madame M is available now from Gecko Press. RRP £16.99

Thanks to Laura Smythe PR and Gecko Press for my copy.

Non-Fiction · Picture Book Reviews · Picture Books

Review: Atlas Of Amazing Birds by Matt Sewell.

Review: Atlas Of Amazing Birds by Matt Sewell.

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Our planet is home to some amazing birds. Open your eyes and meet the true wonders of the world. Knowing about the birds we share our planet with encourages us to care about their wellbeing. 

This is divided into seven sections and introduces the birdlife of eight continents. Each section begins with a map, making this part Atlas, part guidebook. As a whole, with its jewel-bright illustrations and informative fact files, it is a book to marvel over. 

It is the images that make the book. The full-colour images draw the eye as soon as the book is opened. The style is a play on scientific drawings – flat, and forward-facing, they are certainly there is no pretence at a story or pose. However, they are also filled with a certain character which makes it possible to imagine them coming to life and to picture how they might move. This one would glide, for example, and that one flutter. 

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Each entry includes the scientific name and the common one. The common one comes first which not only allows readers to spot the familiar but to marvel over a vocabulary which is in danger of becoming lost. Two or three paragraphs accompany the names. These are well-written and explain where the bird might be found and introducing some of its habits. 

In organising the birds by continent, the book also introduces the idea that we adapt to our habitats. Flicking through, it is impossible not to notice similarities and differences between the birds, and discussing how all the small, bright birds live in warm places, for example, would open an interesting conversation with young readers. 

A page at the back includes a glossary of bird-related terms and suggestions for songs featuring birds. This is such a lovely touch and would make a wonderful ‘next activity’ after reading. 

This is the kind of book which helps a reader form a love with a new subject. After looking through the pages, it is impossible not to want to spot birds in the real world and to know more about the birds which live far away. 

The perfect holiday gift for a young nature enthusiast or for readers who just love a beautiful book. 

 

Thanks to Pavilion Children’s Books for my copy of Atlas Of Amazing Birds. Opinions my own.

Picture Book Reviews · Picture Books

Review: Hansel And Gretel by Bethan Woollvin.

Review: Hansel And Gretel by Bethan Woollvin.

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Once upon a time, there was a nice witch called Willow who lived in the forest. One day, two children dropped breadcrumbs everywhere, threatening the security of her gingerbread house. Wait a second – what? Is that how the story goes? 

This Hanel & Gretel retelling is deliciously funny and works because it is understated. The narrator doesn’ t sound like a smarty-pants who is proud to be subverting the story (which is, if you’ll excuse me, a major put-off in retellings). Rather, this is a whole new story. The story of a witch who put up with gingerbread-stealing, rude little children for just a bit too long. 

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The ending is so fantastic that it made me squeal with delight. Partly because I love gingerbread and partly because it was so much better than the original ending. That’s what happens when you hand the story to a witch with a sweet-tooth and strong magical powers. 

There are a handful of tales I heard once too often in childhood, to the extent that I started to question what the big deal was. Hansel & Gretel is one of them. Everyone loves the gingerbread house and the breadcrumb trail through the forest and that climactic moment as the witch wobbles in front of the oven. I firmly believe that fairy tales are an important part of our lives and that every child deserves to be told them, but there is such a vast range of stories and so many ways of telling each one. Today’s children are lucky to have books like this one. 

The illustrations are impossibly cool, with their contrasting black, grey and orange palette and minimal shapes and in block colours. Hansel & Gretel’s thoughtless, gleeful expressions are terrific. We know from their faces that there is no reasoning with them. 

An old tale reworked into something equally timeless and memorable. This rebalances the story and the result is hugely fun. 

 

Thanks to Two Hoots for my copy. Opinions my own.

Picture Book Reviews · Picture Books

Review: Shadow by Lucy Christopher and Anastasia Suvorova.

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In the old house, there was nothing to be afraid of. No monsters under the bed. Nothing hiding in the dark. In the new house, Shadow appeared.

With vibes of The Bridge To Terabithia, The Snow Lion, and Skellig, this book was going to win my heart. Superficially dark and scary, it actually sees a little girl work her way through a period of unhappiness in her family. It is not explicitly stated what that is. Others have read this book as a narrative of depression, and how a parent’s illness can affect a child, but I thought the illustrations hinted at grief. Of course, we all bring ourselves to a story, and I am currently grieving the loss of my Mum, but there are pictures on the wall of the house which hint at it being the old family home, and Ma in the story is seen with her head bent over two pictures later on.

Anyway. While this is going on, a little girl is waiting. The house is dark, the world feels dark, and she’s all alone. Except for Shadow.

Is he imaginary? Is he a projection of her feelings? He leads the little girl deeper and deeper away from her ordinary life until she can’t cope anymore. She cries like never before, and suddenly she is able to tell Ma what she is feeling. From then on, the light comes back, and eventually the house is filled with a new life and a new happiness.

Sometimes before the light comes back in, we have to acknowledge the dark.

The illustrations in this story have a beautiful, ethereal quality. The gentle snowy landscapes contrast with the darkness and ensure it isn’t too frightening for the young audience. Somehow it conveys without words that this is about emotions and not about a terrible danger from the outside. At times – like times of grief or depression – it can be difficult to put emotions into words. Shadow puts them into images and promises a lighter, brighter future.

Lucy Christopher is a talented story writer, and her words together with these beautiful illustrations have created something special. The perfect reminder that when darkness strikes, the light can be found by hugging our loved ones.

 

Thanks to Lantana Publishing for my gifted copy of Shadow. Opinions my own.