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The Pencil

“Once there was a pencil, a lonely, little pencil, and nothing else.  It lay there, which was nowhere in particular, for a long long time.  Then one day that little pencil made a move, shivered slightly, quivered somewhat… and began to draw.”

The pencil (drawn, naturally, in pencil) is the only thing in existence until he gets going and creates a boy, called Banjo.  Banjo asks for a dog, called Bruce.   Bruce asks for a cat, called Mildred.  Then the pencil draws a house for them to live in, and a road for the house to stand on, and a park for them to play in.  When they complain that the food they’ve asked for is black and white he draws a paintbrush, called Kitty, and together they create an entire world of people and places.

All goes well until the ungrateful characters start complaining about the way they have been drawn.  Banjo’s little sister doesn’t like her trainers. His Dad doesn’t like his ears.  To placate them, the little pencil draws a rubber, who gets on with correcting things. Unfortunately he too becomes overexcited and starts rubbing out everything that Kitty and the pencil have drawn and painted…

This is a hugely creative piece of writing and bounces off the page like an animation.  Bruce Ingman’s drawings are exactly like the pencil sketches they are supposed to be and the mix of graphite and crudely painted illustrations reflects the story perfectly.  The ‘chase’ sequence, where the pencil draws walls and cages to try and escape from the rubber, is brilliantly envisaged and cleverly executed.  Even the ‘rubbings’ from the renegade rubber are included in the printing!  The plot is surreal but absorbing and should inspire many young artists and writers; it celebrates the joy of creating your own universe.

This book would be best-received by preschoolers and school-age children who can understand the concept of drawing as narrative, and perhaps even create their own stories after reading it. It is also well worth looking out for Michael McIntyre’s reading on the CBeebies Bedtime Story.

A surreal but inspirationally creative book.

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Click Clack Moo, Cows That Type

Poor Farmer Brown.  Life in the farming business is tough enough these days without your cows issuing demands and going on strike!  How could he possibly have anticipated the mayhem that would follow his cows discovering a discarded typewriter in the barn? Click, clack, moo.  Click, clack, moo. Clickety clack. Moo.

This book must be one of the few – or perhaps the only! – book for young children that contains the word “ultimatum”.  You may have already realised that we approve of books which don’t talk down to their audience and so this is a welcome bit of vocabulary, along with the description of Duck as a “neutral party.”

The story is very simple: Farmer Brown’s cows are cold.  They type him a note and demand electric blankets.  When he refuses to comply, they go on strike, and deny him their milk.  The hens bustle onto the bandwagon and announce that they are cold too.  The cows write a new note: “Closed: No milk, no eggs.  Sincerely, the cows.”  Tearing his hair out by this point Farmer Brown proposes a deal; he will exchange the electric blankets for the typewriter.  Duck sets off to deliver his message.  But will it end as Farmer Brown hopes?

The thought that Doreen Cronin may be inspiring a generation of political activists is slightly unnerving (who dares imagine countless toddlers proposing strike action over their parents’ unreasonable demands?) but the book is great fun!  There is a fantastic and genuinely funny twist at the end and the clipped little notes from the cows are hilarious.

The relationship breaks down with illuminating rapidity – “Dear Cows and Hens, there will be no electric blankets. You are cows and hens.  I demand milk and eggs.  Sincerely, Farmer Brown” – and Betsy Lewin’s comic illustrations convey perfectly how frustrated the beleagured Farmer Brown becomes.

A comic gem that adults will enjoy just as much as the children.

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Library Lion

“One day, a lion came to the library.”

One of the most beautiful books you will ever pick up, this story is by turns funny, moving and joyful.  It describes the unlikely relationship between a stern but dedicated librarian and the lion who unexpectedly turns up for storytime.

Miss Merriweather runs the public library with a stentorian devotion to the rules.  “No running!” she says, frequently, and “If you can’t be quiet, you’ll have to leave.  Those are the rules!”  One morning, a lion walks into the library.  Apopleptic with horror, Mr McBee the assistant librarian runs to inform Miss Merriweather. “There’s a lion – in the library!” he announces.  Upon establishing that he isn’t breaking any rules, Miss Merriweather tells him to leave the lion be.  He comes to storytime, and thoroughly enjoys himself.

Upon hearing the lion roar, Miss Merriweather marches down the corridor and informs him in no uncertain terms that he will not be allowed to return to the library unless he can be quiet.  Chastened, the lion learns his lesson and from then on he is quiet.  In fact, he becomes an important part of the library.  He turns up early every day and licks stamps, tidies bookshelves, carries the children around and makes himself useful.  From initial scepticism, people come to love the library lion and look forward to seeing him there.

But then Miss Merriweather has an accident.  The lion needs to alert the deeply suspicious Mr McBee, who has been looking for an opportunity to get rid of him since day one, and refuses to listen to him. Until he roars.  As Mr McBee runs triumphantly to report his rule-breaking the lion hangs his head and leaves.  Will he ever come back?

There are so many things to love about this book.  The illustrations (by Kevin Hawkes) are beautiful, from the astonished Mr McBee being roared at to the dismally wet lion gazing at the library through the pouring rain.  The story is long, making it a great book for really avid young readers and giving plenty to discuss for those using it in school.  It’s a wonderful vehicle for learning to understand rules: they must be followed, but sometimes, if you have to help a friend in trouble, it is right to break them.  The writing is fluent, elegant and sophisticated.  So many books treat children as though they are incapable of inference and must have everything spelled out for them, but one joy of reading lies in reading between the lines and figuring out what’s going on yourself.  In Library Lion the emotion is subtle and understated, and all the more moving for it.  Bereft without her lion, we are not told how Miss Merriweather feels but it is absolutely evident from the text:

“One evening, Mr McBee stopped at Miss Merriweather’s office as he was leaving the library. ‘Can I do anything for you before I go, Miss Merriweather?’ he asked her.

‘No, thank you,’ said Miss Merriweather.  She was looking out of the window.  Her voice was very quiet.  Even for the library.”

This is a wonderful opportunity for children to talk about their understanding of the text beyond the literal and obvious, and as such a real introduction to ‘proper’ reading.  Its ending is a joyful celebration of friendship and acceptance.  One to buy and cherish.

There is more about Library Lion on Michelle Knudsen’s website, along with just a few of the positive reviews it received at publication.

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Six Dinner Sid

Sid is a black cat and lives at Number 1 Aristotle Street.  He also lives at numbers 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6…

With admirable arrogance, Sid has adopted an entire street as his own. Not content with popping in for food occasionally he has created a sextet of alter-egos, each with its own name, personality and favourite dinner.  “As Sooty he smooched, but as Schwartz he had to act rough and tough.”  Each night he heads off for his six dinners, “rounding at off at number 6 with beef and kidney stew”.  Life is pretty much perfect for Sid, until he comes down with a cough, and is taken six times, in six different ways, to the same local vet.  With his secret exposed, Sid’s owners sternly restrict him to only one dinner a day.  Sid, however, has other ideas.

Sid’s efforts to claim meals from most of the neighbourhood will strike a chord with all cat owners, and children will admire Sid’s cunning and resourcefulness.  The written style is simple, but the lists of Sid’s dinners and names, as well as the constant emphasis of the number six, make for very effective reading.  This is echoed in the illustrations, neatly stacked in squares like a comic book and showing the six different ways Sid travels to the vet, as well as the six spoonfuls of medicine he is forced to endure!

Six Dinner Sid won the Smarties Prize when first published, and is now a staple of Early Years teaching.  Despite the simple story, there is a lot of potential for discussion, particularly around the personalities in Aristotle Street.  The drawings of the various owners show how different they are, and it is the fact that they don’t talk to each other that allows Sid to get away with six dinners for so long.  In his new home at the end of the book everyone talks to everyone else, and they all know and accept Sid’s behaviour.  If you are reading this with a slightly older child, why not chat with them about this? Or perhaps talk about Sid’s antics – is it right that he manipulates everybody in the way that he does? How would you feel if you were Sid and your secret were found out?

This is a highly enjoyable book with enough humour for adults and one easy to read with plenty of expression.  With older children it has the depth for discussion, but the detailed illustrations and fluent text should make it accessible for toddlers as well.