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Grill Pan Eddy

I’m not completely convinced by the title or front cover of this book, by Jeanne Willis and Tony Ross.  Whilst your curiosity is piqued by the image, combined with the title it seems too narrow a perspective on a book which has more to it than the cover suggests.

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Grill Pan Eddy is a maverick menace of a mouse.  He can do virtually anything, and if there’s an opportunity to steal something, create mess or make something dirty, you can bet he’s there.  The whole story of Grill Pan Eddy is told in rhyme, with occasional (and amusing) poetic licence to make things work.

There once was a very daring mouse

And his name was Grill Pan Eddy.

He lived in a box of porridge oats

In a crumpled cardboard beddy.

The rhyme maintains fluidity and liveliness throughout, with a contemporary feel that works well for this particular text.  Grill Pan Eddy is a sort of punk-ish rebel, who “skied down the butter in his bovver boots / And sneezed in the snottage cheese.”  The complex references and language, as well as the edgy content, mean that this is not a book for toddlers or preschoolers, but would make a good transition book for early readers in the first couple of years at primary school who are not yet ready for chapter books but who need a more grown up tone.

Not all of Eddy’s exploits are as funny as others, but Tony Ross’s illustrations keep both the drama and humour ticking along well.  The strength and cunning of Eddy makes him an appealingly rebellious hero, expecially when he routs the cat despite his long history of mouse supremacy.

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What gives this book more depth than it might otherwise have is the fact that it is not just a story of getting rid of an annoying mouse, but about learning to enjoy his exploits and even become friends with him.  In the end the family are quite attached to him, at which point (spoilers!) he sadly dies.

I love the miserable picture of the whole family mourning at the tiny grave; I think it’s beautifully pitched and works effectively as tragi-comedy.

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Of course they don’t leave the story there however, and with great control of her material Jeanne Willis teases out the final surprise with a subtle and enticing bit of writing.

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Could it be the ghost of Eddy

Tap-tapping on the old tin pan

So soft and sweet and steady?

I like this book. It’s good fun to read, and although I still think Grill Pan Eddy is not the greatest title in the world it’s worth ignoring that and reading the book itself.  Tony Ross illustrations always have an anarchic feel to them and here that fits well with the tone of the story.

Best for slightly older children, probably from Reception upwards.

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Enormouse

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Enormouse, by Angie Morgan, tells the story of a truly enormous mouse who lives with a family of much smaller mice.  He is of course not the same as everybody else, which although at times very useful:

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also leaves him feeling uncertain and different.  Eventually his friend Tinymouse works out that Enormouse is not in fact a mouse at all – he’s a rat!  The other mice all laugh at him. Poor Enormouse is shocked and upset, but decides he must go and live with his real family, who own a dirty lair filled with rotten banana skins and flies.

Filled with remorse, the other mice set off to go and find him and bring him home, but run into trouble on the way.  The question is whether Enormouse can decide in time who his real family are.

The illustrations in this book are fun and lively, conveying real character, and the touches of realism in the photographs in the rat book and the food in the rats den are reminiscent of Lauren Child.  Angie Morgan does a good job of pulling you into the story through the appeal of the illustrated characters.  The story is told clearly and sensitively with just enough detail to lift the language but not so much that the narrative is disrupted.

If I have a criticism it’s that the story is a bit predictable.  Perhaps it may be less so to young children who are not as familiar with how these things turn out, but it is clear from the beginning how the story will progress.  That said, it is a very encouraging story about difference and about feeling accepted, with a nice message about home not necessarily being with people who look most like you.  I could see it being useful to explore the issues surrounding adoption and what makes a family.

If you are specifically looking for a book about difference and fitting in, this could be a good example to use.

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Grandad’s Island

Grandad’s Island is a book about loss and death, and yet most of it is about happiness.

Syd pops round to his Grandad’s house all the time, but one day when he goes  over he can’t find him anywhere. Eventually he tracks him down in the attic.  Grandad opens a heavy metal door and invites Syd through, and suddenly they are both on the deck of a ship.

They sail it across the ocean to a beautiful tropical island where they explore and play together, and see many wonders.

Eventually Syd thinks it’s time to go home, but Grandad announces he is going to stay.  Reluctantly Syd sails back across the ocean without him.  Next time he goes to Grandad’s house, neither Grandad, nor the mysterious metal door, are there.

This is a classic book in the making.  There are so many beautiful touches.  When they reach the island, Grandad says he doesn’t feel he needs his stick any more. As he sails home, a dark cloud and grey weather give a sombre mood to Syd’s trip.  There is intelligence behind every decision in the book, whether textual or artistic.  The illustrations are exquisite, and every page feels like an art print.  In addition, there are many things for children to spot throughout the book.  The island is populated with plants and animals that can be seen in Grandad’s house at the beginning of the story (in this, the island is a dreamlike echo of real-life in much the same way as the land of the wild things in Where the Wild Things Are reflects Max’s bedroom) which have vanished from the house at the end.  I also like the fact that while Grandad’s cat travels with him to the island, he too must return with Syd.

Grandad’s house feels empty without him; Benji Davies makes it clear that he is missed by Syd and that his absence is keenly felt, but the message here is that Grandad has gone to a better place, where he feels young and happy and is surrounded by animal friends.  Death is another country, a distant and tropical isle.

I cannot imagine how this book would not be helpful for a child suffering the loss of a grandparent. I think it’s beautiful, subtle and poignant, and uses its analogy incredibly well.  It’s a fully-realised, sophisticated gem of a picture book, and I do not think it could be better.

Buy it and read it now, or keep a copy to one side.  I sincerely hope it won’t be needed, but I feel more confident about the prospect of dealing with a family death knowing I have it to hand.  It’s a superb achievement, and one of which Benji Davies can be justly proud.

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There’s a Lion in my Cornflakes

One of those books that immediately catches your eye, we picked this up in the library last week, attracted by the intriguing title and the bright orange colour.

A small boy warns us to ignore anything on a cereal packet that offers a free lion in exchange for 100 coupons.  He goes on to explain why, telling us the story of how he and his brother collected 100 tokens, but by the time they had eaten all the cereal, everyone else had also already applied for their free lion.  When eventually the cereal company gets round to their application there are no more lions left, so instead they send a bear.

This does not go down well with the little boy and his brother.  A bear cannot do any of the things they expected their lion to be able to help with.  So they complain to the cereal company, who apologise and instead send a crocodile.  And then a gorilla.

As you can imagine, the house gets crazier and crazier and no lion ever appears. In the end however, the two boys realise there are advantages to what they have and that just about everyone has a lion; it’s not exciting any more.

There’s a chatty, colloquial style to this book that works well given it’s set up as a recount.  Moments like “how unfair is that?!” have an authentic ring of normal speech and make it easy to read aloud effectively as well as appealing to young independent readers. I think it’s probably a little too long and the pacing feels off at times but overall the story hangs together well and there’s a comic coherence to what’s going on.  The illustrations by Jim Field are very successful, if occasionally a little too busy on some pages, but there are some great double page spreads such as the one where the park is filled with 19 lions and their owners.

The message of the book is to accept what you have, even when that’s a bear, a crocodile and a gorilla instead of the lion you wanted, but it makes the point to look at the uses and opportunities you already have in a fun and creative way.

Overall a light-hearted and entertaining book with a core of meaning.

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Oh No, George!

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Oh No, George! is the second book (published 2012) from Chris Haughton, author of A Little Bit Lost.  It’s a bright, cheery looking story, and our version is a board book – unusually a matt finish board book, which although very beautiful does suffer more than usual from wear at the corners and spine.

George is the dopey looking hound on the front cover, and his friend/owner/companion is the longsuffering Harris.  The story in a nutshell is this: Harris goes out, George tries and fails to resist temptation and Harris returns to find the house a mess.  However, George feels shame for his impulsive actions and the second time he faces a choice he may make the right one.

There are two elements to this story that work well for me.  One is the acknowledgement of the temptation to do wrong.  My young toddler loves this book and has done for a while, and I think that’s because on some level, despite her obvious lack of experience with language, she understands what it feels like to want to do something so badly you can’t stop yourself even when you know it’s wrong. Particularly if that something is to eat a whole chocolate cake.

The other is the repetition of “Oh no, George!”. It’s hilarious.  I don’t think I realised it was hilarious until I read it out loud, but cram all the syllables you can muster into those three words and it’s very funny indeed.

Haughton has done a great job with George’s expressions, and despite the ostensible simplicity of the graphic design there is a degree of complexity to what you can see going through his head.

The best didactic children’s books address the issue of making mistakes and accepting imperfection without suggesting you should stop striving to be better.  Oh No, George! does this very well, particularly as it leaves poor George (and us) hanging at the end.  He’s far from perfect, but he’s trying to get better, as we all are and all should be.  That Harris accepts him as he is and is kind is a good lesson for any frustrated parent too.

Well worth getting hold of and reading.

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The Black Rabbit

This is the first picture book by the freelance animator and illustrator Philippa Leathers.  It’s the story of a small white rabbit who is (literally) afraid of his own shadow. He tries running away from it but it sticks with him regardless.  Then when he runs into a dark wood the shadow disappears.  Unfortunately, there’s a far scarier creature lurking in the trees…

If I’m honest the central conceit of this story bothers me.  There’s no set-up to explain why the rabbit has only just noticed he has a shadow.  It seems a little unrealistic, and my awareness of that did colour my reading of the rest of the book.

However, I can forgive it to some extent because I think there is a nice metaphorical meaning here about being afraid of oneself and finding the strength to fight off threat.  The wolf who chases the rabbit out of the woods is frightened by the huge shadow, and the rabbit as a result comes to accept the black rabbit and to make friends with him.  If we take this far enough there’s even a suggestion here of using the things in yourself that you are most frightened of and coming to terms with them, even using them, to make yourself stronger and more powerful.

There are some quite clever points about the shadow as well; when he hides behind a tree the shadow disappears, and of course it does when he enters the darker wood as well.  The logic of the shadow is at least followed reasonably well – although I am still not quite sure how the handholding works in the final ‘scene’!

The illustrations are lovely.  The little white rabbit is particularly cute and looks throughout the book just as vulnerable as he feels.  The shadow is rendered effectively (if perhaps not consistently – there’s no time frame and the shadow doesn’t seem to grow or shrink as it should!)

Overall this is a decent book.  It’s not something I’d suggest you rush out and buy, but might be worth picking up at the library for a read.