Picture Book Reviews · Picture Books

Review: There’s A Spider In My Soup by Megan Brewis

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Little Spider is warned about the dangers of swinging from the web. Cats, light bulbs and clumsy feet are all mentioned. There’s only one problem. Swinging from the web is so fun that Little Spider can’t stop. One day, when everyone is asleep, she ignores all the rules and swings out into the wide world … to land in a bowl of soup. 

It should be a disaster, but taking a risk isn’t always dangerous. The soup-based adventure leads to new friendships, and soon all the spiders are following Little Spider’s lead. 

Little Spider could have been eaten up. Or drowned. That’s the fact, and it is worth pointing that out to young readers. How do we know when it is safe to take a risk and when it is just plain not a good idea? Danger is a difficult subject to discuss with young readers, however, a climate where children are afraid to push themselves and explore is unhealthy too. This is a brilliant story to open conversations about danger and risk. After all, diving from a higher board at the swimming pool is a very different risk to jumping out into the traffic. Risking a grazed knee is a different thing to multiple fractures. Understanding that, as we get bigger, we sometimes have to trust our own instincts is a huge lesson.

The spiders are delightful, and not the least bit hairy or scary. Of course, I’m a spider-lover and have been since childhood, but as illustrated spiders go these are gentle enough that the story could be shared even with people who are phobic. 

 Calm backgrounds are used as a canvas for multiple patterns and colours. Different objects have their own patterns and the result is a collage picture which feels like a snapshot of a normal kitchen. 

An adventure which encourages readers to trust their instincts and to talk about different types of danger, and a wonderful spider-based story. 

 

Thanks to Oxford University Press for my gifted copy of There’s A Spider In My Soup. Opinions my own.

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blog tour · Picture Book Reviews · Picture Books

Review: When It Rains by Rassi Narika

Review: When It Rains by Rassi Narika

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Why does it rain? There are so many things you can’t do when it rains. 

Kira watches miserably as rain pours down the windowsill. It isn’t fair. She’ll have to wear her heaviest clothing, there won’t be anybody outside to play with and if she takes her books outside they will get squished to a pulp. She’s certain there can’t be anything good about rainy days. Then her friends Ana and Ilo come to play, and what started out as a boring day turns into a wet weather adventure. 

A beautiful story about perspective and finding an upside to bad weather. 

Jumping in puddles, watching duckling splashing about and seeing everybody’s bright umbrellas from a high-up window. The rain has a bad reputation, and to little children especially it can mean getting stuck indoors. Remember wet break? Or being called inside to avoid catching a chill? Sometimes I think the dangers of rain are a myth handed down from one generation to another. There is so much to do and see on a mild or even moderately wet day, and allowing children to play in the rain sets them up to carry on in all weathers later in life. 

A gentle narrative begins with questions, building a sense of disappointment, which is slowly replaced with wonder and happiness. This isn’t a story about overawing discoveries, but about the inner joy which can come from spending time observing nature and the outdoors with a group of friends. As well as being a great book to share with young readers, it would make a lovely introduction to study of the early Romantic poets whose ideas about joy and the outdoors were in line with this story. 

Pale watercolour and line illustrations evoke the rain as much as the words. It seems in places as if the rainwater has dripped on to the page, but instead of spoiling it, it has created beautiful textures. Bursts of bright colour such as the umbrellas and raincoats bring joy into the pale pictures. 

This story was translated from Indonesian by Ikhda Ayuning Maharsi Degoul. Reading children’s books in translation is a joy, and I think it is pivotal for readers to see words and ideas from other cultures from an early age. Even something as simple as seeing different words for ‘mother’ and ‘father’ opens up the concept of other cultures and languages and encourages young readers to ask big questions about what lives might be like in a country other than their own. 

A beautiful book which captures that early childhood interest in the outdoors, and openness to new ideas. 

 

Thanks to The Emma Press for my gifted copy of When It Rains. Opinions my own.

 

Middle Grade Reviews

Review: Rumblestar by Abi Elphinstone

Review: Rumblestar by Abi Elphinstone

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Extract:

The dust around Casper shifted and seemed to glitter in the half-light and it was then – in that hushed moment – that the Extremely Unpredictable Event occurred. 

The key Casper was holding now looked altogether different. Without the layer of dust covering it, he could see that it was not simply a dull lump of metal anymore. It was silver and in its base there was a turquoise gem, which was glowing. 

(Rumblestar by Abi Elphinstone. P23.) 

 

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Synopsis:

Casper Tock is allergic to adventure. He lives by a timetable and believes in solid evidence and facts. It is the shock of his life when, first he stumbles into the magical world of Rumblestar and then he is told it is his job to save the world.

Utterly Thankless has lived in Rumblestar all her life. She’s a bottler-in-training, learning to contain the magic which creates weather. Life hasn’t been the same for Utterly since the terrible thing which she refuses to talk about.

Now the evil harpy Morg is awakening and her magic is once more a threat to the magical Unmapped Kingdoms. Can Casper, Utterly and their dragon friend Arlo work together to save the world from Morg and her Midnights?

A magical quest from the master of fantasy Abi Elphinstone.

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Review:

A harpy trapped in a void, a magical grandfather clock and a series of secret worlds where the weather is produced and sent to Earth. No writer should be able to pull all that off in one story, but Abi Elphinstone does so not only with ease but with apparent relish. She’s the kind of storyteller who seems to have a magical bag full of ideas which she ties together into brilliant narratives.

Rumblestar is the first book in the Unmapped Chronicles series, although the prequel Everdark was published on World Book Day. It helps to have read this, as the events of the story are referenced, although it is not strictly necessary.

Landscape always plays a part in Elphinstone’s world, from the Scottish Highland forests and rivers of the Dreamsnatcher trilogy to the icy lands of standalone novel Sky Song. For the first time, Elphinstone has invented her own lands to great effect. The Unmapped Kingdoms are where weather is invented. Each land is responsible for a different weather family, and Rumblestar is where the weather is processed and transferred to the world we know. Casper Tock’s world.

Rumblestar felt like something from Diana Wynne Jones. It is both a place where people live and work, and it is also the central part of a magical system. Reading this story made me feel as if I’d had my eyes shut to an important truth about our world, or maybe just that I should be searching for magic hidden just out of sight. This is the kind of story which makes readers believe that life is big and incredible, and that imagination is a powerful asset on our journey.

There was also an environmental message – one desperately needed given the current crisis. This was not invasive but it is important for readers to start thinking and caring about our world.

A book which is part fairytale and part breathtaking adventure. Another hit from Abi Elphinstone which will leave her readers dreaming of magical worlds.

 

 

 

Picture Book Reviews · Picture Books

Review: The Tide by Clare Helen Walsh and Ashling Lindsay

Review: The Tide by Clare Helen Walsh and Ashling Lindsay

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Sometimes Grandad forgets things. Like what the sandwiches are for or who he is with. His memories are like the tide. Sometimes they are far away and distant. Other times they come crashing in.

Grandad still loves everybody just as much. And when the tide is in, everyone celebrates.

A beautiful and reflective story about observing the changes in a loved one with dementia.

Dementia is an unforgiving condition and there is currently no cure. Watching a loved one change and struggle is equally unforgiving. The suffer’s behaviour might seem perplexing, and correcting someone with dementia when they are certain of a fact is futile. Even for a small child who isn’t in a caring role, this can be frustrating. The Tide acknowledges this, yet also shows a protagonist move from bewilderment and fear into a state of acceptance.

Grandad loves everybody just as much as he always did. His memories just happen to ebb and flow, and he behaves differently at times. 

The tone of this story is beautiful. As someone who has seen dementia in the family, I know how frustrating it is when people get too upbeat. The book gently explores what might change and what remains the same, and how the good moments become more precious. It doesn’t suggest that the changes are good, only that the love between everyone concerned remains the same. And that there will be good times. 

A gentle colour-pallette is broken up with bright details. These stand out in the pale pictures like the brighter moments in the story. There is a poignant picture where the protagonist stands alone against a blank background. She looks tiny in a double-page spread of nothingness. The text explores her fear the everything about Granddad is going. A later spread shows herself and Granddad dancing in the waves, like an answer to the first spread. The tide will come in again. And then everything will feel brighter for a while. 

An outstanding story which not only teaches the reader about dementia but encourages them to empathise with both the sufferer and their loved ones. This is the best picture book about dementia I have seen and I highly recommend it to everyone. 

 

Thanks to Little Tiger UK for my gifted copy of The Tide. Opinions my own.

 

 

Picture Book Reviews · Picture Books

Review: The Really, Really, Really Big Dinosaur by Richard Byrne

Review: The Really, Really, Really Big Dinosaur by Richard Byrne

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Finlay wants to keep some jellybeans to share with his friend but a big dinosaur has other ideas. Fortunately, Finlay knows a really, really, really big dinosaur. He just needs to keep talking long enough for him to come along. 

A story about sharing, size and not getting too big for our boots. 

Bold shapes and jelly-bean colours make fun illustrations which are impossible not to smile at. 

Finlay the little dinosaur has something about The Gruffalo’s Mouse about him. He’s little but he’s brave. The archetypal small character faced with a bigger threat. Every time the big dinosaur comes at him, Finlay comes back smarter. Quicker. Braver. 

I liked the ending of this book because it turns the story on its head. The big dinosaur might be a bully but the really, really, really big dinosaur is a nice guy. He helps his friend out once then helps to divide the jelly-beans into three piles. He sets a good example to the dinosaur with a big personality. Showing off and getting above ourselves is unattractive regardless of size. 

This came as a refreshing change from the ending where the big guy runs away, a narrative which fails get to any meaningful truth. At nine or ten I got small for my age. Sat down in the class photograph and wore clothes for children two or three years younger. Then I turned eleven and grew. And grew. And grew. In that time I noticed a change. Things which got my short friends into trouble got me into bigger trouble. Adults expected more responsibility of me because I was of adult height. A friend’s parent once spent a whole game making me stand in different places so I didn’t put the others at a disadvantage. (Disadvantage, woman from dim and distant past? I couldn’t have aimed the ball straight if I tried). The strangest thing was I was young for my age and not very self-confident. These judgments were made on the grounds of height. Meanwhile, some of the short kids had massive personalities. 

This story is a reminder to the adults reading the book, as well as to the younger readers, that we have two sizes. A literal size and a metaphorical one. It would be lovely to draw charts showing where we think we fall in terms of height, then where we feel we fall in terms of personality. Have we ever had moments where we get above ourselves? Does this happen for a reason? (Some of those small kids from my childhood? Their big personalities were a defence against being treated like babies). 

A fun story which shows the difference between our height and our personality … and reminds us that sharing is more fun than showing-off. 

 

Thanks to Oxford University Press for my gifted copy of The Really, Really, Really Big Dinosaur. Opinions my own.

Picture Book Reviews · Picture Books

Review: The Suitcase by Chris Naylor-Ballesteros

Review: The Suitcase by Chris Naylor-Ballesteros

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A stranger arrives one day with nothing but a suitcase. When the animals ask what is inside, the stranger gives an impossible list. He says there is a broken teacup, a table and chair, and a hut on the mountainside. Tired from his journey, he falls asleep. The animals are so keen to find out the truth that they break open the suitcase. When they see what is inside, they question their behaviour and ask what they should do to make the exhausted stranger welcome. 

The Suitcase is, without question, my new favourite picture book about empathy and compassion. 

With the world in crisis and the number of displaced people rising, there have been a number of stories which explain the situation to very young children. There are some fantastic ones. The trouble is, below a certain age, how much can children understand about war? How much information is too much? 

The Suitcase pitches the story perfectly for children who are not yet ready to talk about war. It talks about a suitcase, a journey, and the reception at the other end. Should we greet exhausted people with hostility and suspicion, or should we greet them with a cup of tea and friendship? Even readers who don’t understand where ‘the stranger’  came from or why he is tired can understand the question posed by the text. 

It is also a fabulous story for older readers. Clues in the text hint tell some of the backstory and the reader can use their own knowledge to question where the stranger came from. 

The way the animals behave, combing over the items in the suitcase, could be metaphorical of the way people’s life stories are questioned and examined upon their arrival in a new country. It opens some gentle conversation about whether this is fair. How much information should people be forced to share and what might they want to keep private? Why might the few belongings they have left be precious? The story helps the reader to empathise by introducing different questions about how somebody might feel in this situation. 

The other interesting point is how the lizard [I think the new arrival is a lizard] is called ‘the stranger’ by the narrator. Stranger is a word we use to mean person we don’t know but at the same time it automatically implies suspicion and hesitation on our part. Is the new arrival a stranger? How else could he be seen? By questioning their own behaviour, the animals in the story discover a whole new way to think about the new arrival. 

With different coloured fonts for every animal in the story, this would be a lovely book to act out. The illustrations are wonderful too, with the animals’ facial expressions changing over the course of the story as they question their own reactions and become better friends to the new arrival. 

A wonderful story which encourages empathy and compassion to displaced people. This apparently simple tale about a suitcase, a journey and a group of friends deserves to become a classic.  

 

Thanks to Nosy Crow for my gifted copy of The Suitcase. Opinions my own.

Picture Books · Uncategorized

Review: Leyla by Galia Bernstein

Review: Leyla by Galia Bernstein

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Leyla has a big family. A huge one. They’re always around, making noise and fussing over each other and generally getting in the way. One day Leyla’s has enough. She heads outside and goes off on a big adventure. She meets a lizard who teaches her to find a quiet space inside herself, and to enjoy the outdoors. 

A cute and relatable picturebook about large families and small living spaces. 

Leyla has a huge family, but it doesn’t take a big family to get on top of each other. With young families struggling for space, especially in cities, many children today will be familiar with the difficulties of not having enough personal space. 

Leyla discovers three things during the same adventure. She finds the quiet of outdoor space which is open to everyone. She learns to meditate or to enjoy her own inner peace. Finally, when she returns home with a minor injury, she learns that it is always better to have family and be loved, even if it means struggling for space. 

The baboons in the story have such extraordinary facial expressions and poses that I feel certain Galia Bernstein has spent lots of time observing them in life and learning their mannerisms. The early pages show Leyla squashed in with her family, with no other background, but when she gains a new perspective we see the baboons life close to a large outdoor space. I love the contrast between Leyla squashed in among her family and the next pages where she explores the outdoors. 

A story which appears to be written from the heart, with a lovable cast of characters. 

 

Thanks to Abrams Kids for my gifted copy of Leyla. Opinions my own.