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Angelica Sprocket’s Pockets

Every time I come to write something about Quentin Blake I find myself at a loss how to describe him.  How do you offer a comment on someone of his stature in the world of illustration and children’s picture books and it not sound paltry, cliched or sycophantic?  What are we supposed to call him? The ‘divine’ Quention Blake? The ‘genius that is’ Quentin Blake? The spectacularly talented Quentin Blake?  All of the above?  After some consideration I think I’m going to stick with the ‘incomparable’ Quentin Blake on the basis that he probably is.  Ok. Here we go.  This then, Angelica Sprocket’s Pockets, is another offering  from the incomparable Quentin Blake and was (I think) published in 2010.

It’s a simple premise but full of well-mined potential.  Angelia Sprocket has pockets galore, and in them she keeps a collection of ever more bizarre and unlikely things.

We start with mice, cheese and hankies and fairly quickly graduate from car horns to cutlery and ice-cream to elephants. Of course none of these things would fit into the pockets on Ms Sprocket’s coat; she has many pockets but they do not seem particularly capacious and therein lies the humour and absurdity.

A few additional bits of cleverness make this even better.  Obviously the illustrations are superb, you could hardly expect anything else, but the placement of lines is also very good.

There’s a pocket for skateboards

(just look at those skaters!)

and another pocket for

occurs on one page, flanked by pictures of skateboarding children, and the punchline is not delivered until you turn to the next page.

alligators.

That’s pretty funny.

The other feature is the strange, meandering rhyme scheme.  It rhymes, but it does so after long, seemingly endless lines that disrupt the rhythm and in a way act like something being pulled out of these eponymous pockets.

There’s a pocket for ice cream

and all kinds of nice things to drink.

There’s a pocket for saucepans and frying pans and buckets and spoons and forks and cheesegraters and

[page turn]

the kitchen SINK.

It’s great.  It’s simple, effective, brilliantly and wackily illustrated, a pleasure to read, surprising on several pages, funny and original – what can I say.  Incomparable.

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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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The Foggy Foggy Forest

What can this be in the foggy foggy forest?”

This is an original and enjoyable book by the prolific Nick Sharratt  It has no real plot, but the word play and interesting use of shadows in the illustrations give you plenty to think about.  It’s a rhyming question and answer format, and with each page turn you discover the answer to ‘what can this be?’

So far, so straightforward, but the illustrations are in varying shades of grey, giving the reader the chance to get what will be revealed in colour on the next page.  Even more cleverly, the shadow of the next character can be dimly seen behind the darker shadow in front.  So if you look at the image above, on the right you can see the dark shape of “three brown bears in picnic chairs”.  Behind it, if you look above Baby Bear’s head, you can just about make out the dress of the “fairy queen on a trampoline”, and behind that you can see the curl of the unicorn’s (French) horn.  Just like the way objects move mysteriously out of dense fog.  Clever, eh?

This is also a fun book from a linguistic perspective.  All children love silly rhymes, and there are some great and original ones in here, my personal favourite being the “ogre doing yoga”.

I’m not the only one who liked this book, as it won a number of awards in 2009 and 2010.  If I have a criticism it’s that once you have enjoyed the gimmick and the words there is not much left to it; it’s a great book to borrow from the library but I can’t see it sustaining interest long-term.  It’s therefore probably better, as a purchase at least, for younger children.

Overall though a very clever premise and an enjoyable read.

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Cats Ahoy!

Books about cats are good.  Books about pirates are good.  A book about cats being pirates – well, where can it go wrong?

Alfonso the cat overhears some old fisherman talking about a huge haul of haddock due to pull into harbour at first light.  He dashes off to round up an unlikely crew of moggies with the promise of all the fish they can eat.

“There’s a ship standing empty,

A three masted clipper.

Meet there at midnight.

Her name is The Kipper.”

In the dead of night the cats cast off from the shore and The Kipper makes its way to the ocean.  The skipper of the trawler, Trelawney P. Craddock, is smugly sailing home with his pile of fish when, out of the mist, a horrendous howling is heard and an apparently empty ship sails out of the haze.  In a panic, the humans abandon their ship, to the delight of the piratical cats.

“In a small sheltered cove out of sight of the land

The sea-mogs scoffed haddock and danced on the sand.

As the bright rays of dawn were beginning to gleam

They sang “Yo-ho-ho and a carton of cream!” “

This excellent book by Peter Bently won the Roald Dahl Funny Prize in 2011.  It surfs along nicely in rollicking verse and with a delightfully anarchic sense of triumph when the cats get their prize.  The vocabulary is slightly more sophisticated than your average picture book (probably on a par with the longer Julia Donaldson books)  and so this should appeal to a fairly large age-range including the first couple of years of primary school.   The illustrations, by Jim Field, are lively and full of character.

What I particularly like is the fact that the story does not end with the cats purloining the fish but with their return home some weeks later, and with a clever (if probably not original) pun.

This is a great book that both adults and children will enjoy reading.

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Big Red Bath

Ben and Bella are in the bath one night when a surprising collection of animals turn up to join in with bathtime.  Dog, Lion, Duck, Penguin, Turtle, Giraffe all climb in with no trouble – but then Hippopotamus tries to get in on the act and things really get exciting.

This is a flight of fancy story in which the big red bath takes a leap of imagination (literally) and slides down the stairs, out of the house and up into the sky, carrying its menagerie of passengers along with it.  There is a LOT of splashing, a significant amount of the ridiculous, and an appealing concept rooted in the simple, common experience of a bath.  At the end, when all the animals finally climb out, there is a lovely touch in the way all the creatures mentioned can be seen in the bathroom – in the dog slippers, the flamingo tiles, the kangaroo towel.

The language is fun and appropriate with lots of bath-time words and sounds: ‘splish’, ‘splosh’, ‘rub-a-dub’, ‘sloosh’ and could lead to a discussion with slightly older children about other onomatopoeic words.  There is a pacy rhythm that drives you onwards through the story particularly at the start with the repeated and extended refrains:

However, if you are sensitive to such things, the scansion is patchy and the rhymes occasionally either do not quite work or seem forced. For example: “Hello kids, can I come for a paddle? Course you can Duck, dibble and dabble!”  It just about gets away with it but it does grate if you have an ear for poetry.

The illustrations, as you can see, are excellent.  Adrian Reynolds is also responsible for Bear Flies High and the other Michael Rosen bear books and again his style fits admirably here.  There is a small board book version but the larger, paperback one really explodes off the page with the splashing and water.  Real attention has been paid to the way the water flows on the page and the placement of bubbles such that the lively, playful mood of the story comes across beautifully.

Despite the odd irritation in the language this story is well worth sharing with your children.  All those I’ve seen it read to have loved it and the narrative really captures their imagination.   And if it proves popular, there are others: Big Yellow Digger and Big Blue Train to name two.

 

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Bear Flies High

Bear Flies High is a short, rhyming book from Michael Rosen and Adrian Reynolds. It’s a sequel to The Bear in The Cave, which is a similar style.

Bear lives by the sea, on the beach, and longs to fly in the sky like the birds.  His friends the children tell him of a place where he can experience the excitement of flight, and take him off to the theme park.  There they go on the cups and saucers, in the haunted house, and finally on the Big flipper.

There’s lightness and jollity in the wordplay in this book.  The rhymes take the form of a dialogue between the bear and the children.

I’m a bear on a beach.

On a beach?

On a beach.

And I sing by the sea all day.

Doo be doo

Doo be doo

Doo bee doodily doo.”

This makes it quite fun to read, rolling the sounds around in your mouth, and more fun to listen to.  But there is skill at work here too. “I watch the birds in the sky./ In the sky?/ In the sky. /  And they fly above me up high.”  The desire in the repeated long vowels shows the quality and control of Rosen’s best writing, and this continues when Bear contemplates the Big flipper.

You can fly up there, if you dare.”

Scary scare

Scary scare

Scary scarety scare.”

For a short and simple book it is textually well-crafted and the tension ebbs and flows beautifully.  From the initial problem of the bear who wants to be a bird there is excitement on the theme park rides, followed by the tension approaching the flipper and the wonderful release as he flies down it. “I’m a bear who can fly!” 

Adrian Reynolds’ illustrations are just right.  The comically lumbering bear is huge but obviously friendly and again there is a subtlety of skill that lifts this above the norm: the framing of the pictures brings out the emotion of each situation: the whirling cup almost flies out of the page and the comic strip effect as he climbs up to the top of the Big flipper shows the fear and trepidation perfectly.

This is along the same lines as We’re Going on a Bear Hunt but to my mind is better; there is a greater depth and skill here and much more longevity.

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Mister Magnolia

Time for another classic.

This book is as old as me.  First published in 1980, it is one of the best of the books written by Quentin Blake, who is most famous as the oft-times illustrator to Roald Dahl.

Mister Magnolia has only one boot.  He has an old trumpet that goes rooty-toot, two sisters who play the flute, a newt, a parakeet-pecked suit, a water chute – and he’s a dab hand at juggling with fruit.  But poor Mister Magnolia has only one boot.  That is until a small girl turns up with a parcel…

This is great fun to read.  The absurd things in Mister Magnolia’s possession, all rhyming with boot, are delightful and of course beautifully and wittily illustrated.  The tiny mice marching past as he takes the salute are gorgeous.  And there is a kind of pathetic fallacy at the end as, depressed at the lack of a boot, Mister Magnolia stares out of the window at the rain and dull people hurrying past with umbrellas.  At the moment when he puts on his new boot, the sun is brightening and a man smiles at the sky, taking down his umbrella.  There is artistry and depth at work here.

For me, the most glorious aspect of this story is the fact that Mister Magnolia gets one new boot. Not a new pair of boots, but one new boot – that doesn’t match the old one.  That additional touch of the absurd is what lifts this story to classic status and has ensured it is now on its second generation (at least) of young fans.