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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.

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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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Zoe and Beans: Hello Ladybird

Zoe and Beans are two characters from Chloe and Mick Inkpen who appear in a small collection of books, aimed at young babies and toddlers, all telling of the adventures of Zoe and her scruffy dog, Beans.  In this book, Zoe has found a ladybird, and put it in a jar.  But as soon as she comes to show it to us, it disappears.  Zoe and Beans then hunt everywhere for the ladybird and find a lot of other lost things in the process.

Look closely at the picture above.  Can you spot it?  Yes, there is is; a tiny ladybird on Zoe’s head.  And that is the premise of the book – the ladybird appears in a slightly different place on every page and can be found with a little bit of hunting.  Although the ladybird is tiny it is actually reasonably easy to spot, even for quite a young child.  This was extremely popular with the fifteen month old who chose it for a bedtime story most nights it was on loan from the library.

It’s a very simple book but lifted out of the ordinary by a few important details.  First, the drawings are delightful, and the characters of Zoe and Beans are instantly appealing to young children.  Secondly, instead of just being a ‘spot the ladybird’ book, there is a narrative thread that runs through it as Zoe finds other things to put in the empty jar.  And thirdly, the language is not neglected (as it often is in books driven by illustrations) but well-crafted and fluent – note the alliteration when Zoe finds “an old penny, a purple pencil, and a soggy pink party popper”.

This is a simple but well-made book, ideal for toddlers just beginning to cope with stories with sentences rather than single words per page.

You can find out about Zoe and Beans on their website, here.

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I Really Want to Eat a Child

The charmingly grumpy crocodile on the front of this book is young Achilles, who desperately wants to forgo his diet of bananas and eat a child instead. His Mum and Dad are concerned at his sudden loss of appetite and attempt to coax him into eating by providing him with a large sausage and an equally enormous chocolate cake.  To no avail, however.  Achilles will not be tricked into eating and stalks off to the river to find himself a child to eat.

Now to that point we have only seen Achilles in relation to members of his family.  To that point you are reading with a very small concern that there may actually be some child-eating involved in the story, and wondering quite how to broach the subject with a potentially concerned pre-schooler.  Then this happens.

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The shift in scale is well-handled and very funny.  Achilles’ attempts at self-aggrandisement come to nothing and the little girl tickles him on the tummy and throws him in the river, at which point an indignant little crocodile marches back to Mum and Dad and declares he is back on the bananas so he can get big… “Big enough to eat a child!”

The illustrations in the book are fun, bright and charismatic, with a lovely feel for the setting.  The book was originally written in French (under the title Je mangerais bien un enfant) and there is a very slight foreign edge to the rhythm of the language in translation, which actually works well for creating a ‘voice’ for the crocodile family.  The premise is funny, but straightforward, with the kind of ironic humour that appeals to children and adults alike.  There is also the subtext of a commentary on fussy eating; for those who are on the pickier side of the table, the message is clear enough – eat what your Mum and Dad tell you to so you can get big enough to eat what you like – but perhaps not dramatic enough to really engage the child on that particular level.  However, it could certainly provoke a conversation about nutrition and eating, and notwithstanding its status as a ‘message’ book, it is entertaining and enjoyable without even taking that into account.

Achilles is an appealing and memorable little crocodile; it’s certainly worth making his acquaintance if you get the chance.

 

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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.