Picture Book Reviews · Picture Books

Review: The Night Before Christmas In Wonderland by Carys Bexington and Kate Hindley.

Review: The Night Before Christmas In Wonderland by Carys Bexington and Kate Hindley.

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The Night Before Christmas, just as Santa is ready to set off in his sleigh, he receives a letter from the little Princess Of Hearts. She would like a Christmas present but her parents said no. Santa is her last hope. Ignoring warnings from his reindeer, Santa sets a course for Wonderland. 

It takes AGES to get to Wonderland by sleigh. (That’s why you need a rabbit hole). Still, Santa and his reindeer eventually arrive. The only trouble is they are greeted by utter mayhem. No stockings, no carrot, and a creepy semi-invisible cat that can pop up at will. Not to mention the Queen Of Hearts. She takes one look at Santa and issues an order for her guards to cut off his head. 

A chase ensues, in true Wonderland style. This is not only a witty take on The Night Before Christmas but it has truly thought about which story would be appropriate to tell if the rhyme was transferred over to Wonderland. It makes strong use of Lewis Carrol’s worldbuilding and characters to create something which Wonderland fans – and readers excited for Christmas – will love and enjoy. 

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This is high up among my Christmas picks of 2019. It has that quality which makes it lasting. This could be enjoyed again and again and, as well as being perfect for this time of year, has the additional draw of appealing to seasoned Wonderland fans. 

Kate Hindley’s style fits Wonderland to perfection. It has a touch of the strange and mysterious but it also finds the fun and friendly in Wonderland. This is especially important for the picture book market, and personally I think it is a more faithful interpretation of the original text than making Wonderland entirely scary. Yes, there’s all that stuff about chopping off heads, but what about the tea parties and races and neighbourhood friendly lizards?  

The illustrations are striking and will go down well with both children and adults. 

A return to a favourite setting combined with a super twist makes this a classic Christmas text. 

 

Thanks to Macmillan Children’s Books UK for my copy of The Night Before Christmas In Wonderland. Opinions my own.

illustrated · Picture Book Reviews · Picture Books

Review: Follow The Star (A Pop-Up Christmas Journey) by Andy Mansfield.

Review: Follow The Star (A Pop-Up Christmas Journey) by Andy Mansfield.

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Long ago, a star shone in the sky to announce that the Son Of God had come to Earth. So the Christian story goes. Now every year a star shines in the sky – over great cities and little houses and snowy, North Pole Skies, to remind us that Christmas is here that it is a time of love. 

With stunning pop-up decorations and a shining star on every page, this beautiful book is short but it is designed to be read over and over so that the reader can enjoy the pop-up experience once again. 

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Gentle books are underrated. A short text with a sweet message will be remembered beyond childhood and many adults can think of one such text that they can still recite many years down the line. However, with competition for anybody’s attention fierce in a world of smartphones and computers and many many stories, it can take extraordinary illustration or design for such a text to be discovered. 

Follow The Star comes under that category. From the introduction where the hills of ancient Bethlehem, so familiar from Christmas cards, spring up between the first pages, it is impossible not to be impressed by the craft. The book is held differently to usual, with the back cover acting as a base. By holding the front cover up at 90 degrees, the pop-up is seen to its best advantage. It is lovely to find books like this because it is important to question whether there are ‘rules’ about reading (like holding a book in two hands and putting the pictures one way up) or whether we can design stories and pictures any way we like. 

The message is gently religious, but in a way that can be shared by people of other and no faiths. This is to say that, as well as reading it to say Christians believe that, the message of finding love and peace at Christmas time is made widely applicable. Whether you believe that is God’s love for mankind or our wider sense of love for one another, the message is in the story. It is lovely to find books like this because, too often, religious books are made in such a way that it can be hard to relate to them if you are not of a faith. Sharing and exploring different world beliefs, and being open to multiple views, is important for everyone. 

This book would make a beautiful gift to share this Christmas. 

 

Thanks to Templar Books for my copy of Follow The Star. Opinions my own.

Blogmas 2019 · christmas · Picture Book Reviews · Picture Books

Review: Santa’s High-Tech Christmas by Mike Dumbleton. Illustrated by Angela Perrini.

Review: Santa’s High-Tech Christmas by Mike Dumbleton. Illustrated by Angela Perrini.

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Santa’s work doesn’t all happen in a single night. Long before he sets out on Christmas Eve he touches up the paintwork on his sleigh and checks the presents off on his modern, new-fangled Techno-Pad. With all this gadgetry to help him do the job, what could possibly go wrong? 

Quite a lot, it turns out. When the pad drops from the sky and the screen goes blank, Santa doesn’t have a clue how to get it working again. He does what any self-respecting adult does during such a crisis – he pokes the screen several times and then accepts the help of a young person. 

Jasmin knows exactly what she is doing and Santa rewards her with an early present. The trouble is, it leaves him nothing to deliver for Jasmin to open on Christmas day. Luckily Jasmin is two steps ahead as always …

A witty story that will gain laughs from children raised with smart technology at their fingertips. 

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Given that adults design the stuff, it is strange how, whether it is GameBoys in the 1990s or laptops in the noughties, or the latest smart technology today, children are, as a whole, always more fluent in the use of electronic gadgets. It helps, of course, when they have never known a world without them – so children born today learn to navigate their way around apps at the same time as learning the alphabet. Even so, I reckon this book will gain plenty of laughs over Christmas as adults hand their new gifts over to nearby young people for configuring.

This story of new-fangled things is illustrated with retro-style pictures. This contrast works beautifully because it hints at the idea that Santa himself has been around … you know … for quite some time. It suggests a nostalgia for days of earlier technology – except, of course, that this was revolutionary in its era. 

A new take on the Christmas Eve delivery story just perfect for anyone who loves their technology. 

 

Thanks to New Frontier Publishing for my copy of Santa’s High-Tech Christmas. Opinions my own.

Blogmas 2019 · Picture Book Reviews · Picture Books

Review: Mimi And The Mountain Dragon by Michael Morpurgo. Illustrated by Helen Stephens.

Review: Mimi And The Mountain Dragon by Michael Morpurgo. Illustrated by Helen Stephens.

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A shy girl called Mimi finds a baby dragon asleep in the woodpile. Everyone in the village is afraid of the great Mountain Dragon but Mimi decides that the baby must be returned. As soon as the bells ring and call the other villagers to church, Mimi sneaks out treks up the mountainside to take the baby dragon safely home.

The Mountain Dragon is huge. She breathes fire. She is also relieved to have her baby home. As a gesture of thanks, she keeps watch over Mimi’s village which, being situated under the snowy mountains, is in constant danger from avalanches. 

Get ready for television animation by sharing the story together. 

This story, which has been available in a smaller book format for many years, has been remade as a larger picture book. The form suits it beautifully. Looking at the double-page and full-page illustrations, I felt as if I was a part of the landscape – looking down on the village from the mountains or up the slopes with Mimi as she climbed. It also allows us to look at the smaller pictures in more detail, and the illustrations are so beautiful that this is fully-deserved. 

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The main themes are friendship and fear and the way we judge others. A person who comes across as terrifying – maybe because they shout too much, or maybe because their tone is blunt and to the point – but who is kind and generous and filled with empathy. The dragon in this story may have a reputation for being fierce, but she cares greatly for her child and wants to show thanks for the little dragon’s safe return. 

Sir Michael Morpurgo is one of our best-known storytellers. Reading his stories always feels more like being told the tale of something that happened by a witness. Often this is intentional. In Mimi And The Mountain Dragon, as in some of Morpurgo’s books, we meet the narrator and learn of their connection to the tale before we hear the story itself. This is so rarely done now in children’s literature and yet it reminds us that the narrator is a part of the story and that stories are, after all, about people and places and experiences worth sharing. Putting The Mountain Dragon down, it is hard to believe the story never happened. 

A touching and gentle story that teaches us not to judge other people on their temperaments so readily. Grab your popcorn and enjoy the animation over Christmas, or make some hot chocolate and read the story together. 

 

Thanks to Egmont UK Ltd for my copy of Mimi And The Mountain Dragon. Opinions my own.

 

Picture Book Reviews · Picture Books

Review: The Snail And The Whale by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler.

Review: The Snail And The Whale by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler.

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A little snail who longs to see the world. A Whale who happens to be bound for a trip around the world. The pair make perfect partners and soon the snail is on the voyage of a lifetime. There is only one problem – the world is so vast and the mountains so high. The snail feels impossibly small. 

The Snail And The Whale is among my favourite of Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler’s picture-books. Possibly my very favourite. It is coming to television this Christmas and I can’t wait to see it on-screen. 

What makes it so fantastic? In my opinion there are two things – the snail and the rhythm of the words. 

Julia Donaldson is one of the most incredible storytellers working today. Every aspiring writer should read her books because, in very few words, she demonstrates a wealth of knowledge. I appreciate that this isn’t why everybody buys the book – and excuse me if I am going off on a tangent – but whether you are buying the books to study them or to read to a very small child, there is one thing I am certain of – a well-crafted story stands the test of time. 

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The snail is a brilliant character. She wants to see the world desperately. She has a huge ambition. She also has a character flaw that gets in her way. The snail is certain that she is small and insignificant. Initially, it stops her from getting the most out of her trip. It is impossible not to root for this tiny character, whose journey demonstrates to the youngest of readers that characters must come back changed from their experiences. From the word go we want to know whether or not she will come back feeling bigger inside. 

The story also has a wonderful rhythm. In this book of all of Donaldson’s work – and it stands out among every picture book in print today – the words just flow. They sing and dance and fly free on the page and in the reader’s mouth. How can anybody not enjoy reading this story aloud? How can anybody read it and not subsequently find the chorus – the words repeated most often throughout the book – stuck in their minds? 

Scheffler’s illustrations are iconic but I look forward to seeing the story animated. These films have become a staple part of Christmas over the past decade and I wish you all fun and laughter as you watch the Snail and the Whale embark on their voyage. 

 

Thanks to Macmillain Children’s Books for my copy of The Snail And The Whale. Opinions my own.

Picture Book Reviews · Picture Books

Review: The Christmas Unicorn by Anna Currey.

Review: The Christmas Unicorn by Anna Currey.

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Milly and her parents are spending Christmas with Grandpa. Dad hasn’t arrived yet, and not only that but Grandpa’s is away from home and Milly doesn’t know anyone. Then, one snowy night when everyone is asleep, a unicorn called Florian appears at her bedroom window. He and Milly become firm friends, and he helps in his own way to prepare for Christmas.

When Florian disappears, it seems Christmas is cancelled, except there may be an even better surprise around the corner. 

A warm-hearted tale about friendship and company. 

Going away for Christmas is something that lots of children will be familiar with, and it can be something that they have no say in. It isn’t that they don’t like to be there, not exactly, but it takes them away from their friendship circles. That means missing out on parties and events as well as having nobody to play with over Christmas. This gentle tale reminds us that to make new friends we have to accept a separation from our existing ones.

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Snowy-white Florian with his beautiful horn embodies everything that is magical about the snow-covered countryside. It is easy to imagine that the place where Milly is staying is a little wilder and a little more open than her home. Getting to know new areas is important and spending time outdoors can, in itself, be a reason to leave home behind for a little while. 

This story also reminds adult readers that, if they make arrangements over Christmas, their small people might need help to settle into a new environment and to find ideas about how to spend their time. After all, five days is forever when you are very small. 

The illustrations show just how many blues and whites can be found in a winter’s sky and they also capture Florian’s expressions and movements as if he was a playful young pony. This is the kind of story that should be read with a nice mug of hot chocolate to hand. 

A comforting read that lots of young people will relate to over the holiday period. 

 

Thanks to Oxford University Press for my copy of The Christmas Unicorn. Opinions my own.

Blogmas 2019 · fairytales · Picture Book Reviews · Picture Books

Review: Starbird by Sharon King-Chai.

Review: Starbird by Sharon King-Chai.

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The Moon King is delighted when he finds out he is to become a father, and he vows to give his daughter the most beautiful present in all the world. He captures the Starbird, whose legendary voice fills the young Princess’s dreams with magic.

One day, the Princess notices that Starbird’s songs are filled with sadness and longing for the open skies. When the Moon King finds out that the Princess has set Starbird free, he vows to hunt high and low until the bird is recaptured.

The Princess begs and pleads with her father to see reason, for she knows that a living thing can belong to no other being.

A beautiful folktale presented with striking illustrations for a new generation.

Starbird – and variations on the story – is a story of hope for humankind. As equally as it makes us despair for the actions of people who have believed they can enslave and claim ownership of other lives, it brings hope. This story has been passed through the generations so clearly there have been voices speaking against such actions throughout time. It gets to the very core of the attitudes that have caused, among other things, the current Climate Crisis. To make a difference to the world we have to put aside the idea that ownership and profit are important.

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With plenty of great books coming out which have an overt message, is it lovely to see a folktale that happens to be relevant to our times. Readers will be introduced to this tale without expecting a message and so it will be their empathy for Starbird that leads them to think more broadly other issues. Otherwise, it is simply a beautiful tale to read over and over.

The illustration and design of this story is stunning and it stands out as a particularly special book because of it. Striking landscapes in pale colours alternate with patterned pages where animal shapes can be made out it the blank space between different designs. Silver foil detail is used to great effect throughout. There is a particular focus on skies – starry heavens, and swirling Arctic lights and pale sunsets over the mountains. This enhances our emotions around Starbird’s longing for freedom because the skies make a contrast with the metal bars of his cage.

It is always nice to mix Christmas stories with fairytales, folklore and classic stories. Starbird’s stunning illustrations and sparkling silver detail make it the perfect book to read over Winter and it is a story that offers a message hope and love for our times.

 

Thanks to Two Hoots (Macmillan Children’s UK) for my copy of Starbird. Opinions my own.

Blogmas 2019 · Picture Book Reviews · Picture Books

Review: Oh, Christmas Tree! by Sue Hendra and Paul Linnet.

Review: Oh, Christmas Tree! by Sue Hendra and Paul Linnet.

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Sidney Street is filled with beautiful Christmas trees in the windows at every house … except at number 34. Behind the front door, the decorations are engaged in a chase with the tree. The tree has no interest in standing still and dressing up. There are hundreds of more exciting things to do. 

Eventually, the decorations tire of running about and set to making a different plan. 

A laugh-out-loud funny rhyming tale about a Christmas Tree who just wants to be left alone. 

What makes this work is that it is relatable. Any young reader will side with the tree, however much they love decorations because every small child knows how boring it is to be made to dress in a certain outfit or to pose for a photograph all on the whim of some adult. Adults too will dimly remember those days. Don’t we all have one photograph of ourselves scowling at Christmas time in a hand-knitted jumper or a frilly dress sent by some well-meaning but clueless relative? 

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On a deeper level, this might help readers to think about each other’s feelings at Christmas. There is a lot of pressure on everybody and it is worth remembering that just because somebody doesn’t go along with plan A doesn’t mean they aren’t there to have a nice time with everyone else. A compromise can often be found and respecting personal boundaries is important. 

The rhyme and illustrations are both in the style of previous books by this author/illustrator duo and these are very popular with young readers. The illustrations are bold and filled with movement and life. At times there is so much energy in the characters it seems that they might run right off the page. 

Funny books play an important part in any reader’s diet. They tackle deep themes and real life issues just as much as other stories and writing good humour is an art form in itself. Oh, Christmas Tree! is pitched perfectly to be funny both to children and their adult readers and it will be a big hit this Christmas. 

 

Many thanks to Macmillain Children’s Books for my copy of Oh, Christmas Tree! Opinions my own.

Picture Book Reviews · Picture Books

Review: Meerkat Christmas by Emily Gravett.

Review: Meerkat Christmas by Emily Gravett.

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Sunny the meerkat of Meerkat Mail fame is back on another globe-trotting adventure.

A magazine arrives at the meerkat burrow advertising the most perfect Christmas ever. It comes complete with a checklist of what is essential to day. Dissatisfied with his family plans, Sunny packs his case and sets out into the wide world.

This story follows a similar format to the original book, with Sunny sending cards home from the different places he visits, except that this time they are Christmas cards. Emily Gravett’s books are always stellar on design and detail and this is no exception. Every Christmas card is a pleasure to open and half the excitement is in seeing what kind of card Sunny will send next. There are cracker jokes littered around the pages (on those white and red slips which seem to be so universal). I love books like this where the main illustrations are complimented by a jigsaw puzzle of things to spot.

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As for the story, I can’t think of a better theme for 2019. Aren’t we all feeling a little mediocre? Social media has given us many good things but we have also fallen prey to measuring ourselves up to posed Instagram pictures and planned out blog posts. Never mind that it took over an hour to set up the photograph. Sometimes it feels like everyone around us has neater bookselves and more beautiful homes and the picture-perfect Christmas.

Sunny finds out that what makes Christmas perfect isn’t the decorations or wrapping paper.

This book is a joy, from Sunny’s Christmas jumper to the excitement of opening the little cards. A fitting follow-up to a popular book and a timely reminder that sometimes we have to look a little closer to home – at what matters to us – to find perfection.

 

Thanks to Macmillan Children’s UK for my copy of Meerkat Christmas. Opinions my own.

Picture Book Reviews · Picture Books

Review: My Naughty Little Sister And Father Christmas by Dorothy Edwards. Illustrated by Shirley Hughes.

Review: My Naughty Little Sister And Father Christmas by Dorothy Edwards. Illustrated by Shirley Hughes.

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Do you know what my Naughty Little Sister did? 

This refrain is known and cherished by four generations of readers. The My Naughty Little Sister books, originally published in the 1950s, are very much of their era but they are still loved for two reasons – they are short but witty stories perfect for bedtime and they hold a certain nostalgia for childhood as it actually was. Not where everything went perfectly and everyone had a lovely time but where any given day was almost bound to end in tears and tantrums. And that was OK because everyone made up again by teatime. 

The narrator of My Naughty Little Sister gives nothing away about her own misdemeanors. Instead, she focuses on the highs and lows of living with a younger sibling. Perhaps that is a third reason that the books are so popular because elder children who have outgrown their pre-school tantrums need somewhere to turn to feel that they are not alone. I wouldn’t know. You would have to ask my own big sister. 

Naughty is a word which is, today, thankfully used only to describe behaviour and not individual children. That is the big twist in the tale – the younger child here isn’t naughty at all. She is just prone to moments of naughtiness which add drama to every outing. In My Naughty Little Sister And Father Christmas, for example, her worst actions stem from a fear of Father Christmas. He is the big unknown, told to her in stories, and meeting him in person proves too much. 

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At least for a little while. Father Christmas turns out to be as lovely as everybody always said and the story ends happily ever after. 

What makes the story work so well is how beautifully behaved the little sister is through most of the tale. She smiles and claps and sings more beautifully than any of the other children. With her little pig-tails and rosy cheeks, it is hard to imagine her capable of a bad thought. The reader, knowing how these stories go, waits in anticipation for the big moment when her behaviour slides. Just how terrible can a small child be?

These long-treasured books are made more popular by Shirly Hughes’s illustrations. Hughes is a legendary artist best-known for her pictures of everyday life in all its happy mayhem and warmth. Her pictures are relatable across a class-divide which is her other big draw. The children playing out or singing together could be from any neighborhood. 

A classic loved by parents and grandparents is now available in picturebook format. This will be gifted straight to my sister, who listened to the stories with me over and over … and remembered my own misdemeanors more than hers. 

 

Thanks to Egmont UK LTD for my copy of My Naughty Little Sister And Father Christmas. Opinions my own.