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The Snail and the Whale

“This is the tale of a tiny snail,

and a great big, grey-blue, humpback whale.”

Julia Donaldson claims this as the favourite of her books and it is no surprise. This charming and original tale tells the story of a tiny sea-snail with an ‘itchy foot’ who longs to go travelling.  Befriended by a whale, the two unlikely companions travel the vast oceans of the world past “shimmering ice and coral caves / And shooting stars and enormous waves.”  The snail is humbled by the magnitude of the world.

“She gazed at the sky, the sea, the land,

The waves and the caves and the golden sand

She gazed and gazed, amazed by it all,

And she said to the whale, “I feel so small.”

When the enormous whale gets into trouble, however, the apparently insignificant snail is the only one who can help.

The stanza above, with its simple structure and delicate internal rhyme, exemplifies Donaldson at her best. This book is exquisitely written.  From evocative images of the “stripy fish with feathery fins and sharks with hideous toothy grins”  to the quiet fear of “this is the tide, slipping away / And this is the whale, lying beached in a bay” each moment is beautifully pitched.

Thematically too the story is a gem.  The wanderlust-infected snail is warned by her compatriots to “be quiet, don’t wriggle, sit still, stay put” but is unwilling to accept her lot in life.   Faced with the breadth of the wide world she has a crisis of confidence, but despite her tiny size it is she who is able to save the whale.   What better message to give to a child than that what they do matters, no matter how small they are, and that the big wide world is out there waiting for them.

The Snail and The Whale is a modern classic.  Easily enjoyed by little ones for the exciting story and the colour of the illustrations, there is a lot to discuss with older children.

Absolutely brilliant.

(PS: You may also enjoy Julia Donaldson’s poem about writing it… See her Day in My Life poem, here.)

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Rabbit’s Nap

A lovely little lift-the-flap book from Julia Donalson and Axel Scheffler.

Rabbit wants a nap, but every time she drops off to sleep someone else wakes her up.  Builder Bear is tapping outside, and a band of mice is rehearsing in the cupboard!  Poor Rabbit tries everywhere but nowhere is quiet.  However, her friends have a plan to help her.

This award-winning hugely successful pairing are known for long, detailed books, but this, part of the ‘Tales from Acorn Wood’ series, is much shorter and simpler.  Each double-page consists of four rhyming lines explaining where Rabbit naps and who interrupts her, and there is a flap to open revealing the culprit.   There are only twelve pages in total and instead of the full landscapes that  Scheffler usually draws the pictures are more basic, larger, and centred on plain cream pages.  The text is in bold print and the language is straightforward and clear.

This is a really well-pitched book.  Clearly aimed at a younger audience than The Gruffalo or The Snail and The Whale, Rabbit’s Nap bridges a gap between the very basic baby book and more complex writing for older toddlers and preschoolers.  It is ideal for babies reaching the end of their first year who are able to get more involved with books and open flaps themselves, as well as for younger toddlers.  There is enough in the illustrations for an adult to talk about but not so much as to confuse very young readers.  And there is enough charm in the story to give it longevity with older children too.

Look out for more ‘Tales from Acorn Wood’ as this is a nice series; great when moving away from baby’s first books onto something more interesting.

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The Highway Rat

“The Highway Rat was a baddie,

The Highway Rat was a beast,

He took what he wanted and ate what he took,

His life was one long feast”

Julia Donaldson has borrowed from Alfred Noyes’ poem The Highwayman for this tale of a rodent robber and his endless quest for junk food.  The galloping cadences echo the horse’s hooves and, as in the original, make this easy to read aloud and give it an urgent, pacey feel.  The Highway Rat robs travellers on the road – not for money, but for food.  He seeks out cakes, biscuits, puddings, lollies, and chocolates, although the animals he holds up are only able to provide him with a bunch of clover, a bag of nuts and a leaf.  Undismayed he continues his pillaging and “the creatures who travelled the highway / Grew thinner and thinner and thinner / While the Highway Rat grew horribly fat / From eating up everyone’s dinner”.  Fortunately a ‘plucky young duck’ has a cunning plan to end the Highway Rat’s reign of terror.

There are a few briliant moments in this story.  The Highway Rat’s demands come across well through the verses and are fluently and cleverly expressed.  Stereotypical phrases such as ‘stand and deliver’ and ‘who goes there?’ are also worked in nicely.  Ultimately however The Highway Rat feels weak, especially in comparison to Donaldson’s other books.  Axel Scheffler’s drawings are as accomplished as ever and the rhymes work fairly well, but the ending of the book is awkward and unconvincing – it does not evolve naturally from the rest of the story.

A morality tale of a dessert-hungry rat getting his just desserts, The Highway Rat deserves a reading, but not, perhaps, a space on the bookshelf.

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The Gruffalo

Less a book than a phenomenon, more than 3 million copies of The Gruffalo have been sold in over 30 countries worldwide.  Published in 1999, its most prestigious award was the Smarties Book Prize that year.

“A mouse took a stroll through a deep dark wood…”

The tiny mouse encounters three hungry predators on his (probably ill-advised) walk through the woods.  Each time, he manages to put them off by suggesting that he is meeting up with the Gruffalo, a – so he thinks – fictitious monster “with knobbly knees and turned out toes, and a poisonous wart at the end of his nose.”  This creature gets more and more developed with each telling of the tale.  As each animal thinks better of eating the mouse he scoffs to himself “doesn’t he know? There’s no such thing as a Gruffalo!”  At least, he does until he suddenly runs into one himself.

Faced with the terrifying prospect of his own creation (shades of Frankenstein, perhaps!) the quick-witted mouse decides, with incredible bravado, to claim that he is the most terrifying creature in the wood.  Of course the other creatures are terrified when the mouse returns with an enormous hairy monster and quickly disappear, leaving the less than quick-witted Gruffalo ‘astounded’.  All it takes is the suggestion that the mouse might fancy some Gruffalo crumble and off he runs.

The Gruffalo has been made into a CGI animation in which Axel Scheffler’s world comes attractively to life, and some well-known voices provide those of the central characters.

So why is this book such a success?  Part of it is down to the story – the repeated tripartite structure and the universal appeal of the successful underdog in the shape of the cunning little mouse.  Axel Scheffler’s Gruffalo is instantly iconic.  And Julia Donaldson’s verse is at its pared down best, with creative plays on the potential favourite foods of the Gruffalo:

” ‘Where are you meeting him?’

‘Here, by this stream.  And his favourite food is owl ice-cream!’ ”

Perfectly crafted and beautifully illustrated, three million readers can’t be wrong: a modern classic.

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Tiddler (the story-telling fish)

“Once there was a fish and his name was Tiddler.

He wasn’t much to look at with his plain grey scales.

But Tiddler was a fish with a big imagination.

He blew small bubbles but he told tall tales.”

These delightful lines are the opening to Tiddler, by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler (of Gruffalo fame).  Tiddler is the aquatic equivalent of the boy who cried wolf.  He is always late for school and concocts more elaborate excuses with each passing day.  His classmates don’t believe him (“”It’s only a story,” said Rabbitfish and Redfin, “Just a silly story,” said Dragonfish and Dab”) except for Little Johnny Dory, who repeats Tiddler’s tall tales to his Granny.  However, one day, whilst dreaming up his ‘tallest story yet’ Tiddler is accidentally caught in a fisherman’s net.  Although they throw him back to sea, he is far away from home.  But then he hears a story he recognises…

Axel Scheffler’s illustrations are at their best in this book, as the underwater theme allows him to pack lots of detail into every scene and the colours are vibrant and exciting.  (There is even a cheeky cameo from a Gruffalofish!)  The rhymes are clever and the repeated sections work well for young readers to anticipate lines (“Tiddler? Tiddler? Tiddler’s LATE!”) which makes for enjoyable, interactive reading.

If you are reading this out loud, try adopting different voices for the different fish, particularly in the final section where Tiddler traces his stories back to their source.  With older children you could even discuss what voices you might expect from a lobster, an eel, a whale and a shrimp!  With younger ones, take advantage of the detailed pictures and expand their vocabulary playing ‘find the octopus/jellyfish’ or count the starfish and eels.

A great book with lots of potential for enjoyment.