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The Day the Crayons Quit

Drawn (though not written) by the superb Olive Jeffers, this is a creative and unusual story about the right and wrong way to use a box of crayons.  It takes the form of a series of letters, purportedly from Duncan’s crayons, complaining about his habits and asking him to change.

Frankly, the crayons are an irritating bunch.  Red complains about never getting a break.  Blue feels he is overworked and consequently stubby. Grey feels like he spends too much time colouring enormous things like elephants and rhinocerouses and not enough time on small easy things like pebbles and baby penguins. Purple feels Duncan does not colour neatly enough. Yellow and orange argue vociferously about which is the true colour of the sun.  Beige crayon is thoroughly irritated, sick of coming second to brown bemoaning that he only gets to colour turkey dinners and wheat – “and let’s face it, what kid ever got excited about colouring wheat?” Only green has anything really positive to say, congratulating Duncan on his career in ‘colouring things green’ so far.  By far the funniest page is that about the poor peach crayon who’s been stripped of his wrapping and hides, naked, in the crayon box.

In the end, Drew Daywalt’s entertaining wander through the messages of the crayon box culminates in a spectacular picture from Duncan who tries to accommodate all his crayon’s wishes at once.  It’s a good talking point with children, allowing you to discuss what each crayon wanted and whether Duncan has been able to do it or not.  You can spot all the references back to the rest of the book, which is obviously good for comprehension and reflecting on reading.

This is a funny book, with a level of humour that works well into the primary school years.  If I have a criticism, it’s that the format is quite repetitive.  The stories from each crayon do not really build on or from each other, so the middle (and dominant) section of the book is like a list rather than having any narrative drive forward.  There are a lot of crayons, and it does get a little repetitive in form.  However, there is just enough detail and difference between each letter to keep the reader engaged despite this.  It’s certainly proved very popular with the children who’ve read it and the 6 year old has taken it off to read repeatedly to herself.

Drew Daywalt won the Good Reads Choice Award for Best Picture Book with this, and it is certainly an original and enjoyable piece of writing for 3-7 year olds.

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Worries Go Away!

There’s a place where I go

When things make me sad.

There’s a place where I go

When good turns to bad.

Kes Gray and Lee Wildish are the writer and illustrator responsible for this 2014 book about dealing with fears and anxieties.  Written in simple rhyming stanzas and making its points through metaphors, this is a heartfelt offering that may be genuinely useful to children and parents in a difficult place and will have some relevance at least to almost everyone.

The little girl pictured throughout has her own place to go when she is sad.

You can’t get there by bike,

You can’t reach it by phone.

The place where I go

Is a world of my own.

Now I confess my first response was to think this was going to be a book about using visualisation to solve your problems but as I read on I realise that (not for the first time) I had missed the point.  Her mental world is indeed idyllic –

there are flowers and trees,

There’s birdsong and blue sky,

There’s honey and bees

– but the worries – yellow, spotty, amorphous blobs that turn into monsters – pursue her there and start to take over.

The metaphor then develops as she finds herself backed against a door, outside which her family and friends are gathered.

They’ve been trying to reach me.

They’ve knocked and they’ve knocked.

But the door to my world

Has always been locked.

(I’m pleased to say I had got the point by then).  Eventually she is able to make her way through the door and finds her worries disappear.  The book ends on the message that it is better to share problems with people who love you than to try to tackle them alone.

The next time I’m troubled,

There’s a place I will go.

Not a world of my own.

But to someone I know.

It’s a lovely concept and very well done.  The pictures are bright and fun and the use of colour to convey the girl’s moods is effective.  The moment quoted above, where she describes her family knocking to get through to her, is genuinely moving.  The rhyme is effective in its simplicity and it’s an excellent means of conveying the desired message.  The use of metaphor too is entirely appropriate and would help communicate the idea clearly to a child.

The only thing I don’t like is the moment of transition, because for me it is just a little too much.  “I stare at the door. The door stares at me. Suddenly I realise I AM THE KEY!”  Whilst the idea that she herself has to open her heart to her family is of course appropriate, the explanation feels over-stressed and slightly illogical.  This is probably a pedantic reaction but it just jars enough to spoil an otherwise elegantly subtle text.

Overall though this is a great concept and well-executed.  It’s moving and genuine and could easily help a child be comfortable about opening up about their emotions.  As such it’s probably more suitable for over-threes but then probably has relevance for children up to about seven.

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Time for Bed, Fred!

It’s 8 o’clock, and time for Fred to go to bed.  He, not unsurprisingly, has other ideas.

Published in 2013, this is one of those books that is worth having as a work of art if nothing else, but it also has a funny and engaging narrative.  The incorrigible Fred tries all manner of delaying tactics to avoid bedtime but ultimately gives in.  What lifts Yasmeem Ismail’s story though is that it’s written as one half of a dialogue; the other participant being a silent (and unco-operative) Fred.

That’s not your bed, Fred!

That’s not your bed, Fred!

That’s not YOUR bed, Fred!

Oh Fred, that’s MY bed!

The repetition and the rhyme will have young listeners in fits of giggles, intensified by the scruffy illustrations of the disobedient hound.

Reading this in a voice of increasing mock-irritation is great fun and although simple enough, children of a variety of ages would enjoy it. For the very young there is plenty of language practice to be had discussing all the things that Fred does instead of going to bed.

Excellent for toddlers and pre-schoolers and good for less confident young readers to read themselves.  A fun bedtime story if you trust your child not to emulate Fred’s behaviour!

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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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I Want My Hat Back

Rather like Good Little Wolf, this is a darker-than-average tale that still manages to be very funny.   It is an unusual book in the sense that very little emotion is conveyed either by the expression of the characters or by the narration.  In fact there is no narration, as the story is merely the dialogue between the various characters.

The protagonist is a large brown bear, who has lost his hat.  He asks various animals if they have seen it, to no avail.  Sharp-eyed readers may spot the following a few animals in, however…

The bear, oblivious, continues on his way, after the first more complex moment of the story.  Unlike the other animals who explain fairly simply that they have not seen the hat, the rabbit defends himself excessively and suspiciously:

No.  Why are you asking me.

I haven’t seen it.

I haven’t seen any hats anywhere.

I would not steal a hat.

It is not until later, when someone asks him to describe his hat, that the bear has his moment of realisation: ” I HAVE SEEN MY HAT.”

He runs back off to find it, and having confronted the rabbit, sits down with his hat.  The rabbit is conspicuously absent, and when asked by an innocent squirrel if he’s seen a rabbit in a hat his reply is an almost exact copy of the rabbit’s earlier denial –  apart from the telling line: “I would not eat a rabbit” …

Jon Klassen’s 2011 book was an instant hit when it came out and actually made it to the top of the NYT’s Bestseller List.  He is a man of many talents, mostly artistic (which is obvious from the style of I Want My Hat Back) and worked on the animation for both Coraline and Kung Fu Panda.   This year, 2013, he won the Caldecott Medal for Illustration for his latest book This is Not My Hat.

Despite some arguments about whether the ending of I Want My Hat Back is appropriate for a children’s story (in terms of a central character being eaten with no reported repercussions for the bear) it received critical acclaim and international popularity, particularly in Europe (Klassen is Canadian) where we apparently like our children’s books full of humour and the darker the better.  Certainly the moral of the story (steal a hat, risk getting eaten) is more in tune with the classic fairy-tales of those like the Grimm Brothers.   Where I think this deserves plaudits is in the interpretative work required by the reader to intuit the story from the spare illustrations and text, and particularly to read behind the lines of the defensive protestations of the rabbit and bear.

This won’t be to everyone’s taste, but children will love it.

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Spells

This is an unusual and interesting book that may attract children who are not normally into reading.

A frog finds a book of spells, torn into pieces.  First he imagines it is about boats, and then about castles (an excuse for some beautiful illustrations made of cut-out pieces of spell-book) and that he can kiss a beautiful princess.

Eventually he decides to try to find a spell to turn himself into a handsome prince.  At this point the pages in the book split into horizontal halves such that they can be mix and matched in different ways.  On the left is the pieced-together spell, and on the right are the top and bottom halves of particular animals, together with part of their names.

Some bizarre and entertaining creatures can be made, such as the Fabbit, the Snewt, the Brog, the Rake… and eventually the various combinations that lead to the Prince.  The pages can be turned and combined in any order, so young children could have some autonomy here which may well suit those who usually dislike being read to.  The large letters and the portmanteau creature names are an excellent way of breaking down language as an introduction for reading – although it is annoying that they are all in capitals which makes it much harder for children to read themselves.

The Prince is comically bare-bottomed, and although he does find his princess there is a little twist in the tale at the end.

As usual Emily Gravett’s illustrations are delicate, stylish and beautiful, and although this story lacks a strong narrative and as a result any sense of real purpose, it is nonetheless fun to read and experience and is an excellent book for discussing and interacting over.  A quirky little treat.

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The Pirates Next Door

Here is the well-observed opening double page to Jonny Duddle’s prizewinning picture book:

Matilda’s boring life is enlivened only by the prospect of – perhaps – another young girl moving in to the empty house next door.  But one day new occupants do turn up, and they are not quite what the reserved, middle-class inhabitants of Dull-on-Sea (twinned, naturally with Ennui-sur-Mer) were expecting.

Matilda is rather taken with young Jim Lad and his sea-faring family, but the other landlubbers of the town are less than enthusiastic.  There follows a superb commentary on middle-class snobbery and narrow-mindedness, with the various residents demanding the removal of this blot on the moral landscape.

” ‘Miss Pinky called the council, to see what they could do.  She didn’t live through two world wars to have pirates spoil her view!’  ‘It really is DISGRACEFUL, on such a lovely street.  You’d think that they would TRY to keep their garden looking neat!’ ”

The whole town (except Matilda) unites against the pirates and demands they leave.  “Before you know it, there’ll be more – we’ll ALL have pirates lodged next door!”  However, before the aptly-named Jolley-Rogers leave they have a surprise for the townspeople that may change their opinion of pirates.

Adults will love the satirical humour and children the nefarious antics of the pirate family, who board rowing boats in the park and dig up the local roundabouts.  The text is clever and the rhyme works well, despite the occasionally jarring piece of scansion.

Jonny Duddle’s illustrations (sketched initially in pencil and then drawn onto computer via a tablet) have all the detail and skill of someone who worked on the character design for the latest Aardman film (“Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists”)  There is an astonishing amount to spot and to talk about in the pictures and lots of extra little jokes that are worth looking for.

The Pirates Next Door won this year’s Waterstones Children’s Book Prize and it’s a worthy champion.  It is clear how much work and thought went into creating it and a wide-range of ages will enjoy it on different levels.  With five and six year olds this could lead to quite complex moral discussions about the presence of the pirates and the attitude of the landlubbers, but younger children will like the rhymes and the comic pictures.

Highly enjoyable, original and very very pretty.