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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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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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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.

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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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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.