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The Pigeon Needs a Bath!

I loved the first ‘pigeon’ book, Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus, and enjoyed the second, Don’t Let the Pigeon Stay Up Late, but this, if lacking in the same punch of originality you got with the first, possibly tops the lot.

The premise is the same: the bus driver/human figure asks the reader to help with the errant pigeon, and the book consists of the pigeon’s half of the conversation.  The reader (or listener, if articulate enough) has to provide the other half of the dialogue.  For a start, as I think I said on my previous review, this is a fantastic concept for a children’s book.  It’s interactive in the best sense of the word and encourages speech, develops persuasive language skills, requires tactical thinking, and on top of that adds an element of citizenship teaching – don’t be as obstructive as the pigeon is!  In this particular case the pigeon is filthy and needs a bath and comes up with the usual plethora of excuses as to why he doesn’t need one. “Clean, dirty – they’re just words, right?”

There are great moments during this excuse phase, one of which is the way that at every turn he realises his arguments are flawed.  The flies he claims are “purely coincidental” depart with an indignant instruction to “take a bath dude” (do it in a voice like you’ve swallowed helium and it’s even funnier). He even turns on the reader to deflect the issue and asks “When did you last have a bath?” only to coo despondently “Oh.  That was pretty recently.”  The quality of the language and the use of common phrases is even better than usual in this one and it is a real pleasure to read.

However the climax of this book is the inspired section when, having finally agreed to the bath, the pigeon tries to make it to his liking.  It’s too hot.  Too cold.  Too lukewarm.  Too few toys.  Too many toys.  Too hot. Read punctuated with the ‘pssst’ of the bath tap this reduces even my six-year-old to hysterical giggles.

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If I have a criticism, it’s that the replies the pigeon requires are more complicated than the original.  In the Bus version, usually only ‘No’ is required to shut the pigeon up, and this can be understood and said by children of a very young age.  In this you actually need to understand what the pigeon is implying and ‘no’ is not an adequate or appropriate response.  It means that to get most out of the book the adult reader needs to do more on both sides of the conversation and model possible answers to the child.  It’s not a bad thing, but it is an area in which this book falls down slightly compared to previous incarnations.

We’ve only had this a week and we’ve had to read it at least once every day, which is no hardship whatsoever.  It’s a great one to share, a great one to encourage children to speak and argue with the pigeon, and genuinely very, very funny.  Just go and buy it.  Go on.

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Knuffle Bunny Free: An Unexpected Diversion

This is an oddly placed review, on the grounds that this is the third book in a trilogy of Knuffle Bunny stories, but we happened to have it on loan from the library so here you are.

The previous two books, Knuffle Bunny: A Cautionary Tale and Knuffle Bunny Too: A Case of Mistaken Identity deal with the same basic plotline as this third installment: Trixie, now looking four or five instead of the toddler in the first book, goes on a trip and loses Knuffle Bunny.  In this case the family is heading off to Holland (which given the book is American, is a REALLY long journey) to visit Oma and Opa.

On the following page, Knuffle Bunny disappears somewhere between the left and right hand page, which the sharp-eyed reader may spot before, some while later, Trixie realises he has gone.

The book handles the loss of a much-loved toy in a straightforward but accurate way.  Trixie sees and does all sorts of exciting things, but none of them feel exciting without Knuffle Bunny.  Her grandparents try to replace him with a new toy, but this clearly isn’t the same.  Trixie wonders how she will sleep another night in a strange bed in a strange country without her comforter.  She is understandably distraught, despite the adults trying to encourage her by telling her how big she is getting.

So far, so straightforward.  The denouement is surely obvious: Knuffle Bunny will turn up in some miraculous fashion before the end of the book and they will all live happily ever after.  However, Mo Willems is cleverer and more original than that.  Trixie has a dream, about all the places Knuffle Bunny might go, and all the children he might help on his travels.  And she feels a bit better.  And she enjoys the rest of her holiday.

On the plane, the miraculous reunion does take place.  Knuffle Bunny is in the pocket of the very seat she is sitting in (this does seem implausible but I have always wondered how often they clear out those seatback pockets).  What happens next though is less predictable; in fact you have to wonder whether the writers of Toy Story 3 had read this book before making their film.

Mo Willems was praised for his inventive illustrations for the series and they are delightful.  Trixie, Knuffle Bunny and all the characters are drawn in a simple cartoon style, but the backgrounds are all black and white photographs, giving a surprising sense of realism.

The writing is very simple but very direct, and the art of the storyteller makes this a moving fable about growing up, and moving on.  It’s reflected in the poignant message at the end of the book from Willems to his own Trixie, about his hopes for her future life.

He proved with the Pigeon books that he is an inventive writer with an eye for the way that small children think, and here Mo Willems shows all that plus a sense of pathos.  He understands the way that children and adults view their progression through the milestones of childhood and any little one who reads this will empathise with Trixie – and potentially learn about selflessness and sacrifice as well.

A wonderful piece of storytelling and one to savour.

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Katie Morag and the Dancing Class

There are to be dancing classes held on the Isle of Struay.  The girls choose ballet, and the big boy cousins tap, but Katie Morag isn’t really convinced by either.  She finds all manner of reasons to be late to ballet, until one day she misses the class completely and unexpectedly discovers that dancing is not all bad after all.

I confess that I hadn’t read any of these stories until seeing the (excellent) BBC adaptation.  Mairi Hedderwick is a long-established writer of both adults’ and children’s books, and Katie Morag, whose fictional home of Struay is based on the real island of Coll in the Scottish Hebrides, was first created in 1984, yet it wasn’t until watching the programme with the girls that we looked into the books.  They are delightful stories, beautifully illustrated, and very popular with the children who listen to them.  Of particular significance to me is their old-fashioned, gender-neutral, play-based vision of childhood.

In the Dancing Class, Katie Morag is extremely reluctant to go.  Her ever-practical maternal grandmother, Grannie Island, is certain it will be good for her co-ordination.  Her other grandmother, Grandma Mainland, is just excited at the prospect of Katie Morag in a frilly skirt.  Katie Morag is not excited about the frilly skirt.  Nor about ballet.  She goes, but goes later and later every day until one day she misses it, and ends up in her cousins’ tap class.  After dancing in her wellies she gets a taste for it, and ends up performing in the tap routine in the show, completely with tapping welly boots cobbled together by Grannie Island.

The writing is excellent; fluent, detailed and readable.  But more than that the characters are well-drawn, and well-rounded.  The contrasting approaches of the two grandmothers, one of whom knows Katie Morag better than the other; Katie Morag’s dislike of ballet and dance in general which softens during the story, and her loitering with intent on the beach in the morning are all very well-observed.  Significantly too this is a book about a girl whose gender is not her defining characteristic.  Katie Morag wears a skirt, but always the same neutral jumper and the same black wellies.  She rejects both the frilly skirt and the gender stereotype, avoiding the girls’ class and joining her male cousins.  When she does so, however, she continues to wear her own wellies,made into tap boots by a resourceful Grannie Island.  Throughout the stories Katie Morag’s attachment to her wellies is a source of tension between her and other characters, but she always sticks with them; here, their use as tap shoes shows her self-determining nature and the way she bends the class to her will rather than compromising herself for dancing.

“What are you like, Katie Morag?” said Hector.

“She’s like she is, she’s Katie Morag,” said Jamie.

However, this is no straightforward tomboy rejection of girly ballet.  Watching Agnes, Fay and Sasha perform their ballet dance, Katie Morag gains a new respect for that too.  That message, about giving things a chance rather than rejecting them outright, is a nice lesson to take from this book.

These are wonderful stories and this is a good example; the story is neither girly nor a rejection of all things girly, despite the female protagonist.  It’s well-written, beautifully drawn and part of am impressive and worthy collection that will keep your little bookworm interested for many years.

A solid-gold classic.

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Seadog

Our dog is not a work dog,

A round-’em-bring-’em-home dog.

Our dog is a seadog.

Published last year in 2013, this beautifully illustrated book is an ode to a beach-loving, wave-chasing, “find-and-roll-in-fish” dog. A quick google reveals that Claire Saxby writes poetry as well as books, which makes sense because although it does have a sniff of a narrative Seadog reads like a poem, and is full of delicious nuggets of language.  Seadog is a “run-and-scatter-gulls” dog, a “jump-and-chase-the-waves” dog.  He isn’t a “sit-still-then-roll-over” dog. Those adjectival phrases will have Early Years teachers reaching for their literacy planners faster than Seadog can spook a gull.

The main message of this is of course accepting people as they are and celebrating the individual.  Sure he is scruffy and dirty and smelly, and he won’t bring back a stick, or do as he’s told, but Seadog is very much loved by his owners. And his irrepressible joi de vivre is reflected in Tom Jellett’s vibrant illustrations.

Like Seadog himself, this book reeks of personality.  It’s funny, touching and well-written and could be enjoyed on different levels by children of different ages.  A five-star find.

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Sally and the Limpet

Sally goes for a trip to the beach and finds a limpet attached to a rock.  She pulls and pulls at it, and eventually it comes loose – and attaches itself to her finger.  The story follows Sally’s travails as she and everyone else she knows tries to remove the limpet from her finger.

Simon James is not a writer I was familiar with until I picked this up in the library; and in fact I only picked it up because it was about a girl called Sally.  However, as you can see from the picture above, this a very pretty book and well worth a read. The watercolour illustrations are beautifully drawn and capture the naivety of its young character.

The story does the pictures justice.  Sally has to go home from the beach with the limpet still stuck on her finger, as her (rather macho looking!) father can’t get it off.

People try everything to remove the creature but to no avail.  At school, her teacher tells her that limpets live for years and spend all that time on the same rock.  I love that that information is delivered to us as readers with no comment and no emphasis, it’s just put there on the page and left.  Which means that when Sally begins to feel rather upset at the doctor’s increasingly aggressive attempts to remove it and makes a run for it, it is for once not immediately obvious what she is doing and why.

Sally, without direct adult involvement, returns the limpet to his rock, and the contrast between the dramatic attempts to get it off and the simple way it eventually leaves – “the limpet, feeling at home once more, made a little squelching noise and wiggled off her finger” – is very effective.  It is a straightforward but very moving lesson in personal responsibility and in not interfering with things that are nothing to do with you.

An entertaining story with a meaningful subtext, this is writing for children at its best.  It has potential as a text for early years study and could easily fuel a discussion about sea creatures, or what’s right and wrong and responsible when you find an animal at the beach.

Look out for more Simon James reviews as they are clearly worth exploring further!

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Cockatoos

This is a new favourite.  I came to it by accident via the text of Quentin Blake’s excellent lecture on the role of illustration from this years Hay Festival.  It is another of those books where the power of it lies less in the words than in the interplay between word and picture.

Professor Dupont owns ten cockatoos who live in his conservatory.   Every morning he follows the same routine, getting dressed and ready before throwing his arms wide in the conservatory and saying “Good morning, my fine feathered friends!”  The cockatoos (perhaps not unreasonably) become sick of hearing the same words every morning and escape to play a trick on the unsuspecting Professor.

There follows what (to judge from the hysterical laughter) is a highly entertaining game of hide and seek for the reader.  Professor Dupont goes around his house looking in every room, trying and failing to find his birds.  The text regretfully notes the absence of cockatoos.  However, the cheeky cockatoos very much ARE there, and visible to us if not Professor Dupont.  The irony is simple but delicious and the increasing absurdity of “there weren’t any cockatoos there” becomes laugh-out-loud funny very quickly.

There is little text to comment on but the illustration is superb, even by Quentin Blake’s high standards, and the simplicity of the premise is what makes it work so well.  Some pages (notably the four cockatoos underneath the bath, and the above picture of the six hiding behind attic suitcases) are just a joy to look at.

There is a chance that very young children will not ‘get’ this, but certainly from age two to five I would think this is a great book to return to again and again.

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Winnie’s New Computer

In another story about the scatty, scruffy Winnie the Witch,  Winnie gets a new computer.  She is very excited about it, as is Wilbur, who is very interested in the mouse.  Not that it looks like his kind of mouse, but that doesn’t stop him from patting it at every opportunity.  A frustrated Winnie throws him outside.  In the rain.  Later she has a brilliant idea and scans her entire Spell Book into the computer so that she can do magic with just a click of the mouse.  Poor Wilbur is again the hapless victim of her experiments, and it soon transpires that throwing out her book and wand with the rubbish was not the wisest of ideas…

This is an excellent satire on modern technology.  Winnie neglects her cat, who is outside staring mournfully through the rain-drenched window, whilst she orders a new wand and surfs the web at www.funnywitches.com (no, it isn’t a real website. We checked!)  Wilbur even moans that ‘that mouse has put a spell on her’.  How many parents are similarly addicted to their gadgets?  There is also the inevitable disaster when Winnie throws out her wand and book in favour of doing everything on the computer and finds herself without a back-up. It’s a simple and oft-repeated argument that we rely too much on technology at the expense of traditional methods of doing things, and perhaps that argument is nothing new, but in a children’s book it’s a great way to start a debate with young children about over-reliance on computers.

The illustrations are as bonkers and full of character as usual, and this is a carefully and well-written story with plenty of humour.  I only wish all online delivery services were as quick as WandsRUs…