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.

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Picture Book Reviews · Picture Books

Review: Nibbles The Monster Hunt by Emma Yarlett.

Review: Nibbles The Monster Hunt by Emma Yarlett.

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Uh-oh! Nibbles?

Nibbles the monster is on the loose again. There’s no stopping him. He’s eating his way through all the information books on the shelf, leaving great big monster-sized holes. The boy in the story has been here before. Except, this time, a dragon has awoken, and he’s hunting Nibbles through the pages.

Can the boy help Nibbles escape before he becomes a snack for a hungry dragon?

Nibbles the book munching monster is a popular character from recent illustrated fiction. Imagine a stack of five or six books, piled up on the floor. If Nibbles ate his way through book one, he would find himself at the cover of book two. Then climb inside that and carry on his way.  Younger readers will take Nibbles to heart because he is a rule-breaker. He is allowed wreck books – something they have hopefully been warned against! 

Along the way, we get to peek at the books Nibbles himself is reading. This time, he is in a pile of information books. Real facts are illustrated – about the sun, the moon, and colours, and a counting book – introducing the idea of non-fiction to newer readers. 

This title is especially fun because Nibbles is not the only monster around. The other title I reviewed saw him munch his way through a book relatively unchallenged. This time, he is in trouble and must use his wit to escape the books without being eaten by a dragon. This adds some tension and gives the reader a solid reason to side with Nibbles. Nibbles only eats pages. The dragon eats little monsters like Nibbles. 

The illustrations use blocks of primary colours, but they are nicely shaded and coordinated with other colours in the pictures. I love Emma Yarlett’s style – things are bouncy and might have looked innocent, except that characters like Nibbles have a cheeky glint in their eyes. 

Another successful book in the series. This is a story with a strong reread factor. It is just impossible to resist chasing Nibbles through the holes for another round. 

 

Thanks to Little Tiger Press for my copy of Nibbles The Monster Hunt. Opinions my own.

Board Book

Review: Apple by Nikki McClure.

Review: Apple by Nikki McClure.

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An apple is picked from the tree. It is forgotten, thrown on the ground, buried, and in time a shoot grows from the earth. This beautiful board-book uses papercuts and minimal words to explore the life-cycle of the apple. 

The perfect book to read as the Harvest comes around. 

Early autumn is my favourite time of year, with fruit on the trees, sunshine and cool breezes which make it perfect for walking. Our village has a large number of apple trees and previous years have brought apple-pie, apple and blackberry crumble and fresh apples in the fruit bowl. Since living here, I have felt more in touch with where our food comes from, and this book is the perfect introduction to exactly that. 

It’s generous, full-page illustrations open lots of conversation about the harvest, composting and growing. 

The illustration is not only beautiful, it is also attractive to the adult reader. Board books begin as a supervised activity, and it is lovely to see one with art that the adults can engage with. Not that the book is aimed at them, but this might encourage big readers to look closer and point out details to the young listener. It would also be lovely to make apple pictures together with black and red crayons. 

At the back, there is an explanation of life-cycles and seasons which would be lovely for older siblings who share in the reading. 

An attractive and engaging book to introduce the science behind food growth. 

 

Thanks to AbramsAppleseed for my gifted copy of Apple. Opinions my own.

Guest Post

Guest post by Daniel Gray-Barnett, author of ‘Grandma Z’.

Guest post by Daniel Gray-Barnett, author of ‘Grandma Z’.

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About Grandma Z

Albert wants to feel special on his birthday. Nothing ordinary will do. He blows out his candles, makes a wish … and then there is a knock at the door. His Grandma Z has arrived, and she knows how to turn an ordinary day into something magical. 

Grandma Z caught my attention because it celebrates the relationships between young people and their grandparents. Grandparents too often go unacknowledged and underappreciated, but the time we spend with them stays in our memories for a lifetime. 

Grandma Z has raised children. She’s lived her own life, developed her personality, and she has so much to share with Albert. 

I am delighted to share a guest post from creator Daniel Gray-Barnett which discusses his own three beloved grandmothers. Thanks to Daniel for your time, and to Catherine Ward PR for organising. 

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My Grandmothers as inspiration for my debut picture book

By Daniel Gray-Barnett

When I wrote Grandma Z, I would be lying if I said I didn’t have three women in mind when I created the title character. Yes, three! I’m lucky enough to have had three grandmothers, though sadly one has now passed away.

My father’s father divorced and remarried before I was born, so on my dad’s side, I’ve always had my Nanna, my Grandma and, on my mum’s side (she’s of Chinese background), my Poh-Poh.

Whilst none of my grandmothers wear a radiant blue coat, sport bright orange hair, nor ride a motorbike, what they did do in terms of writing this story was inspire it with their stories, their spirit and the love I have felt from them. Grandma Z herself is a gregarious force-of-nature – her zest for life is hard to contain. In a way, she represents the inner-grandmother I see inside each of my own grandmothers. They are kind, strong women who have each faced challenging lives and never lost the twinkle in their eyes. I always felt loved and safe with them.

I remember as a young child growing up in Sydney, Australia, my Nanna stayed with us a few days most weeks to help care for us and take some pressure off my mum. I’m one of triplets, with 2 other younger siblings – there were 5 kids under the age of 6 so I’m sure it was a challenge, no matter how well behaved we were!

Nanna had a room at the end of the hall, right next to the bedroom I shared with my triplet brother. I have fond memories of creeping into her room and watching Eastenders and The Bill with her, whilst she knitted. If I couldn’t sleep, or I was upset, or needed somewhere to be quiet, I could cuddle up with my Nanna in there. She was a quiet, sweet woman who taught me how to knit and make pikelets. She raised my father as a single mother and her strength is an inspiration. She used to wear lovely felt hats and coats and I think she’d approve of Grandma Z’s sartorial choices.

My Poh-Poh is even quieter than my Nanna was – she speaks English but uses it less and less the older she gets. I was very fortunate that she lived with my grandfather in a house across the road from ours. I can still picture many afternoons after school spent sitting at the bench of her kitchen, watching her as she cooked. She fled China together with my grandfather when the Japanese invaded in WWII, raising her young family in Malaysia then Singapore before settling in Australia. As a result, the Chinese food I grew up with had a very South-East Asian flavour. Char Kway Teow noodles, curry puffs and steamed BBQ pork buns were some of my favourite things she would make. She may have been – and still is – a woman of few words, but she showed me how love can be communicated equally as strongly in non-verbal ways.

Grandma is probably the grandmother who is most similar to Grandma Z in mannerisms. I call her every couple of weeks and she never fails to make me smile with her cackling laugh. She’s a little frail nowadays, but when she was younger she was an avid ballroom dancer. She has a large china cabinet proudly displaying her porcelain figurine collection. These are not dolls, they are elegant women in their finery – ruffled flowing dresses, parasols or flowers in their hands. Every time we would visit, I would scan the shelves of glass and choose a new favourite.

Sometimes during school holidays, we would stay with my grandparents for a few days. I have memories of dressing up and playing witches, turning the living room into a cubby house and collecting macadamia nuts from the tree in the garden. Grandma was the one who would let us sprinkle a spoon of sugar on our cereal and always let us have ice-cream for dessert. There would always be at least several different toppings we could choose from and one of them would always be a new flavour. She was the grandmother who indulged and spoilt us. With her, we had room to just be kids and know there was little we couldn’t get away with. The warmth and joy I get just from speaking to her is nearly tangible. We’re not related by blood, but the bond we share is just as strong as any familial bond. Our relationship has shown me that family can be a choice, that it’s not just about who you are related to, but who you choose to connect with and love.

There’s something to be said for the special, unique relationships between grandparents and grandchildren. Each grandparent brings their own history and talents to the table. Sometimes, that relationship is stronger with one grandchild more than the others. Often freed of the boundaries of parental discipline, the relationship can become a true friendship – a child seeking a confidante or acceptance, a grandparent who has a chance to explore their inner-child. There is an exchange of wisdom and perspective, from both parties. In the case of complicated or damaged relationships between grandparents and a parent, a grandchild can be a bridge, an opportunity to reconnect.

Grandma Z is as much about celebrating this intergenerational connection as it is about celebrating the imagination and connecting with someone who allows you to just be yourself. Often, these things go hand in hand. The relationship between Albert and Grandma Z is a representation of that love and freedom I felt with each of my grandmothers.

Sometimes, ‘on an ordinary day, in an ordinary town’, a child just wants to feel unordinary. And sometimes, spending time with a grandparent is the quickest way to do just that.

 

Grandma Z by Daniel Gray-Barnett is out now, published by Scribe, £6.99 paperback.

Picture Book Reviews · Picture Books

Review: Nordic Tales (various authors and translators). Illustrated by Ulla Thynell.

Review: Nordic Tales (various authors and translators). Illustrated by Ulla Thynell.

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Princesses and enchanters and giants. Dragons and polar bears and hags. Enter a world of icy magic with this beautiful anthology of traditional Nordic Tales. 

This collection contains 17 stories, each with a full-page illustration by Ulla Thynell. Her artwork is so beautiful and atmospheric that just looking at them brings an imaginary breeze into the room. They conjure up a world carpeted in white snow, where anything and everything could be waiting beyond the window. Although there are no further illustrations or decorative borders within the text, the pictures are so rich and detailed that they set the scene and draw the reader into the story. 

Tales include East Of The Sun And West Of The Moon, The Forest Bride and The Magician’s Pupil. They are categorised by events, so those which contain stories of transformation are together. The three categories are Transformation, Wit and Journeys. This was interesting as a writer because it allowed me to see similarities between stories in each category.

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The stories come from different sources and were rewritten by various translators. A section at the back explains their origin, and credits all involved. 

I was interested in this title because of my love of folklore. I grew up on my Dad’s collection of folk-rock, which led me, in turn, to seek out folk stories as a teenager. The books I found were primarily British or Celtic, although I also read some Greek mythology. It was later that I started to look wider, and discovered stories from so many other places. 

Anthologies like this are magical. The beautiful pictures make the dark nights seem bearable, and possibly even a bit special. Reading this every evening made me want to curl up in front of a log fire and sink deeper into the words. The perfect present for a winter celebration, or the perfect treat to ease yourself into the cold weather. 

 

Thanks to Chronicle Books for my copy of Nordic Tales. Opinions my own.

Picture Book Reviews · Picture Books

Review: The Boy Who Knew Nothing by James Thorp and Angus Mackinnon.

Review: The Boy Who Knew Nothing by James Thorp and Angus Mackinnon.

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Once there was a boy who knew nothing, nothing at all. When he went to school, all the other children pointed at him and made fun until the boy didn’t want to learn. Then, one day at home, he found something strange in the attic. A pink, feathery something with a long neck and a beak. 

The boy sets off with his new friend in tow, in search of answers, and a journey of learning and discovery begins …

A beautiful, imaginative tale about the joys and challenges of learning. 

The most difficult thing about learning a new subject – at any age – is accepting that you know very little to begin with. This is difficult enough for children if they feel behind their peers. It causes adults no end of bother. They think they left learning behind years ago, that they should be able to write or paint or do whatever it is like an adult. When it turns out they are still beginners, they become frustrated or embarrassed. Which is a pity, because every hour of learning builds their skills. 

This book follows a child who is afraid to learn. It looks at the causes – the teasing and self-consciousness he encounters when he gets things wrong – and then at what sets him on his way. When he finds something in the attic, a question forms in the boy’s mind, and he can’t stop until he understands. 

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When we remember our education, we too often recall trying to get things right. But the most exciting moments, surely, were when we got so interested in something that we couldn’t stop trying until we learned more. The Boy Who Knew Nothing celebrates the joy and excitement of gaining new knowledge, and remind us not to be afraid of trying. 

The story is told in a cheery rhyme which reminds me of Dr Seuss. It introduces us to an everyday child in the everyday world, then everything turns upside-down as fantastical things happen in the boy’s life. 

The illustrations are striking. They remind me of Art Nouveau, except for the vibrant pinks and greens. The style is certainly unique and special among picture books, and it would be lovely to have some colouring pages to accompany this title. I imagine lots of readers will have a go at their own drawings. 

The perfect story for anybody who is nervous to learn. It is joyful and clever and filled with optimism. 

 

Thanks to Templar Books for my copy of The Boy Who Knew Nothing. Opinions my own.

Non-Fiction

Review: Odd Science – Brilliant Bodies by James Olstein.

Review: Odd Science – Brilliant Bodies by James Olstein.

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Brains, bones, and bogies. Our bodies are brilliant and there is so much we don’t know about ourselves. 

Did you know that your teeth are as hard as a shark’s? That the muscles in your oesophagus could push food into your stomach even if you were hanging upside down? Did you know that stomach acid is powerful enough to dissolve metal? Between the trivia and the fantastic illustrations, this is the kind of book which hooks the reader and keeps them flicking. 

The genius of this is some of the facts would be covered by a standard biology lesson, while others would probably be classed as trivia. Once hooked, the reader doesn’t care which is which and will absorb information without question. 

The books in this series are a lovely size, perfect for slipping into a backpack or holding with smaller hands. 

I have reviewed a book in this series before and was impressed with the retro-style illustrations and limited colour palette. The energy and humour keep the book right up to date, and the overall effect is striking. This is the sort of book which adults want to buy for children just because of the design. It would also appeal to a broad age-range because it is impossible to resist picking the book up. 

A great addition to a series which makes scientific facts fun. 

 

Thanks to Pavilion Books and Catherine Ward PR for my gifted copy of Odd Science – Brilliant Bodies. Opinions my own.