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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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Stuck

This 2011 story should really have been kept back for a while to avoid an undue bias towards Oliver Jeffers but frankly it is too good to leave out.

Floyd is a small boy whose kite gets stuck in a tree.  He throws his favourite shoe at it to get it down, but the shoe gets stuck too.  So he takes off his other shoe and throws that at his favourite shoe, and that gets stuck as well.  Then he fetches Mitch the cat, who also fails to return.  I suspect you can see where this is going…

In the end, the catalogue of things that disappear up this (truly astonishing and gravity defying) tree goes from the sublime to the ridiculous, including as it does the milkman, the family car, a long-distance lorry, a whale, the house across the street and (of course!) the kitchen sink.  The increasing size and the impossibility of the things that Floyd throws up there will delight readers of a range of ages, but there are several jokes for adults in here too.  Fairly early on, Floyd fetches a ladder “to sort this out once and for all” – then throws it up the tree.  The same fate awaits the saw that he carefully lines up, and the team of firemen (plus their engine) who offer to help.

Utterly bizarre but engagingly surreal this is a simple idea stretched to the point of madness, but it is great fun to read.  Even odd little touches such as Floyd having a favourite shoe (as opposed to a favourite pair?!) add to its charm.  The illustrations are artistic and flamboyant – a step further than the stylish but reserved quality of Lost and Found – and the text varies in size and looks as though it were scribbled with a 4B pencil.  Although this would be a struggle for a young child (especially one with dyslexia or similar) to read independently because of the handwritten style, it is a great book for sharing.

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Lost and Found

The moment you open this book you know you are reading something special.  The opening line – “Once there was a boy, and one day he found a penguin at his door” – has just the right amount of surreal humour.   And let’s face it: everyone loves a book about penguins!

The boy, frustrated at being followed continually by the penguin, decides to help it return home.  After thwarted attempts to palm it off on the Lost and Found office and to help it on board a boat bound for the South Pole, the boy loads his own rowing boat and sets off across the ocean.  There is no attempt to suggest that this is anything other than a reasonable thing to do – and it is that that makes this book something out of the ordinary.  Children love to be absorbed by their fantasies, and the acceptance that rowing a penguin to the South Pole wearing little more than a woolly jumper and a bobble hat is perfectly normal is both hilarious and charming.

Oliver Jeffers is now well-known amongst readers of children’s books for his stylish illustrations and his quirky, original ideas.  The faces of his drawings are not terribly expressive, which far from detracting from the story adds comedy at moments like the boy’s vain attempt to ask the duck in his bath for advice.  His writing in this book is also very good, however.  There are simple metaphors and a minimal amount of text; even a relatively young toddler would have enough patience to sit through each page.  The slightly arch humour (“he asked some birds if they knew where the penguin came from, but they ignored him.  Some birds are like that.”) will amuse older children as well.

Clearly I am not the only one to have seen the potential in the story.  It has been extended and made into a 25 minute animated film which is itself beautifully crafted.  Although the story has been necessarily embroidered, the tone of the book is maintained and if anything the details in the film enhance the sense of a relationship between the boy and the penguin.

In the end, the boy realises that “the penguin wasn’t lost.  He was just lonely,” and what was a fantastic adventure becomes a tale about finding friendship in unlikely places.  The book ends with the two characters, now friends, sharing stories all the way home, and the final birds-eye-view illustration of the tiny boat floating above the shadows of two enormous whales is surprisingly moving.

Lost and Found reads simply and elegantly, and the illustrations are memorable and engaging.  Popularised by the film, it looks set to become a modern classic.