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One Ted Falls Out of Bed

This is a lovely book from Julia Donaldson and Anna Currey.  It’s a rhyming, counting book set at bedtime in a child’s room.

One Ted falls out of bed.  He tugs and pulls the bedclothes BUT…

Two eyes are tight shut. He jumps and shouts and makes a fuss,

Till three mice say, ‘Play with us!’ “

There are six kind dolls and seven trolls, nine frogs playing tunes and five bright stars in the sky.  The numbers build to ten and then as Ted attempts to get back into bed his staircase breaks and everything counts back down again.  The ending works beautifully, as, in response to the noise:

Two eyes open wide,

And one ted…

Is back in bed.

The final picture shows the sleeping child in bed, fast asleep, with Ted’s bright eyes peeping out from under the covers.  There are some lovely rhymes and the slight shifts in the rhyme pattern change the pace of the story effectively at different times.

This is a well-crafted, simple, but effective book, with touching and appealing illustrations.  It is an ideal bedtime story.

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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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National Libraries Day (UK)

Today in the UK is National Libraries Day, a celebration of book-borrowing and shushing!

Libraries have had a tough time of it recently; once the only place to go locally for reference information and a refuge from the expense of book-buying, the rise of the Amazon cheapie, the internet and Google have rendered them obsolete places for many.  But there are still large numbers of people who rely on libraries and the many services they offer.  They hold story-sessions for children, rhyme times for babies, host discussion clubs and book groups for adults, offer computing and internet access, contain local public records, and have large numbers of books, audio books, CDs and DVDs to borrow – for free!

Little wonder then that when the coalition decided to cut library funding, precipitating a drop in library opening hours and in some cases even local closures, there was an outcry.   Fortunately the noise made by local authorities about the threat to this important community hub has thrust libraries to the forefront of the national debate, making them an unlikely poster child for the effects of the age of austerity on ordinary people.  And, dare we suggest, reminding people that they still exist.  I think there is an element here of ‘you don’t know what you got till it’s gone’ and perhaps with libraries under threat people will make more of an effort to take advantage of what their local library has to offer.  Always assuming it’s still open, of course…

Anyway, to mark National Libraries Day the children’s Laureate, the incomparable Julia Donaldson, has written a poem in celebration of the many things that libraries are to many different people.  I reproduce it here on the assumption that having been published online it is intended to be shared.  If not, I’m sure someone will be along to shush me shortly.

Everyone is welcome to walk through the door.

It really doesn’t matter if you’re rich or poor.

There are books in boxes and books on shelves.

They’re free for  you  to borrow, so help yourselves.

Come and meet your heroes, old and new,

From William the Conqueror to Winnie the Pooh.

You can look into the Mirror or read The Times,

Or bring along a toddler to chant some rhymes.

The librarian’s a friend who loves to lend,

So see if there’s a book that she can recommend.

Read that book, and if you’re bitten

You can borrow all the other ones the author’s written.

Are you into battles or biography?

Are you keen on gerbils or geography?

Gardening or ghosts? Sharks or science fiction?

There’s something here for everyone, whatever your addiction.

There are students revising, deep in concentration,

And school kids doing projects, finding inspiration.

Over in the corner there’s a table with seating,

So come along and join in the Book Club meeting.

Yes, come to the library! Browse and borrow,

And help make sure it’ll still be here tomorrow.

If you have a library near you – go and visit.  See what they have to offer.

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A Bit Lost

Little Owl falls out of his nest whilst asleep, and when he bump bump bumps to the forest floor he can’t find his Mummy anywhere.  Fortunately Squirrel is on hand to find her – although not without making some fairly wide-of-the-mark suggestions first.

There is a long list of awards on the back of this admittedly very pretty picture book.  Bisto Book of the Year, the Eilis Dillon Award for  a first Children’s Book, a Booktrust Best New Illustrators Award 2011, and winner of the Association of Illustrators Children’s Book Gold Award.  The Irish Times described it as ‘A stunning literary and visual achievement’.

The quirky design is so striking that at the time of writing Little Owl is the Booktrust Twitter feed avatar.

Many others on Amazon have noticed the same problem, however: A Bit Lost is the same story (with the addition of some convivial biscuits) as Julia Donaldson’s Monkey Puzzle.  The latter is a such a rich, detailed book that it is extremely difficult for this very simple story not to be overshadowed by it.

That said, A Bit Lost is very, very subtle in its visual narrative.  Where Monkey Puzzle dazzles with words, this charms with pictures.   Squirrel’s arm stretches pointedly as he suggests potential parents; Frog’s eyes bulge comically; and when Mummy Owl is found she appears huge and inviting with outstretched wings.  The pared down text has appealed to at least one three year old (although bought for her sister) who insists on being asked ‘Is that his Mummy?’ every time so that she can call out “NO! That’s a BEAR!”  And the little cyclical joke at the end as Little Owl closes his eyes and starts to tip sideways off his perch once again makes for a tidy finish.

The similarity with Monkey Puzzle makes it difficult to shower Chris Haughton with praise for any originality (although to be fair both books seem to owe elements to PD Eastman’s ‘Are You My Mother’ from thirty years earlier) but his execution is without doubt both effective and attractive.