I Want My Hat Back

Rather like Good Little Wolf, this is a darker-than-average tale that still manages to be very funny.   It is an unusual book in the sense that very little emotion is conveyed either by the expression of the characters or by the narration.  In fact there is no narration, as the story is merely the dialogue between the various characters.

The protagonist is a large brown bear, who has lost his hat.  He asks various animals if they have seen it, to no avail.  Sharp-eyed readers may spot the following a few animals in, however…

The bear, oblivious, continues on his way, after the first more complex moment of the story.  Unlike the other animals who explain fairly simply that they have not seen the hat, the rabbit defends himself excessively and suspiciously:

No.  Why are you asking me.

I haven’t seen it.

I haven’t seen any hats anywhere.

I would not steal a hat.

It is not until later, when someone asks him to describe his hat, that the bear has his moment of realisation: ” I HAVE SEEN MY HAT.”

He runs back off to find it, and having confronted the rabbit, sits down with his hat.  The rabbit is conspicuously absent, and when asked by an innocent squirrel if he’s seen a rabbit in a hat his reply is an almost exact copy of the rabbit’s earlier denial –  apart from the telling line: “I would not eat a rabbit” …

Jon Klassen’s 2011 book was an instant hit when it came out and actually made it to the top of the NYT’s Bestseller List.  He is a man of many talents, mostly artistic (which is obvious from the style of I Want My Hat Back) and worked on the animation for both Coraline and Kung Fu Panda.   This year, 2013, he won the Caldecott Medal for Illustration for his latest book This is Not My Hat.

Despite some arguments about whether the ending of I Want My Hat Back is appropriate for a children’s story (in terms of a central character being eaten with no reported repercussions for the bear) it received critical acclaim and international popularity, particularly in Europe (Klassen is Canadian) where we apparently like our children’s books full of humour and the darker the better.  Certainly the moral of the story (steal a hat, risk getting eaten) is more in tune with the classic fairy-tales of those like the Grimm Brothers.   Where I think this deserves plaudits is in the interpretative work required by the reader to intuit the story from the spare illustrations and text, and particularly to read behind the lines of the defensive protestations of the rabbit and bear.

This won’t be to everyone’s taste, but children will love it.


The Pirates Next Door

Here is the well-observed opening double page to Jonny Duddle’s prizewinning picture book:

Matilda’s boring life is enlivened only by the prospect of – perhaps – another young girl moving in to the empty house next door.  But one day new occupants do turn up, and they are not quite what the reserved, middle-class inhabitants of Dull-on-Sea (twinned, naturally with Ennui-sur-Mer) were expecting.

Matilda is rather taken with young Jim Lad and his sea-faring family, but the other landlubbers of the town are less than enthusiastic.  There follows a superb commentary on middle-class snobbery and narrow-mindedness, with the various residents demanding the removal of this blot on the moral landscape.

” ‘Miss Pinky called the council, to see what they could do.  She didn’t live through two world wars to have pirates spoil her view!’  ‘It really is DISGRACEFUL, on such a lovely street.  You’d think that they would TRY to keep their garden looking neat!’ ”

The whole town (except Matilda) unites against the pirates and demands they leave.  “Before you know it, there’ll be more – we’ll ALL have pirates lodged next door!”  However, before the aptly-named Jolley-Rogers leave they have a surprise for the townspeople that may change their opinion of pirates.

Adults will love the satirical humour and children the nefarious antics of the pirate family, who board rowing boats in the park and dig up the local roundabouts.  The text is clever and the rhyme works well, despite the occasionally jarring piece of scansion.

Jonny Duddle’s illustrations (sketched initially in pencil and then drawn onto computer via a tablet) have all the detail and skill of someone who worked on the character design for the latest Aardman film (“Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists”)  There is an astonishing amount to spot and to talk about in the pictures and lots of extra little jokes that are worth looking for.

The Pirates Next Door won this year’s Waterstones Children’s Book Prize and it’s a worthy champion.  It is clear how much work and thought went into creating it and a wide-range of ages will enjoy it on different levels.  With five and six year olds this could lead to quite complex moral discussions about the presence of the pirates and the attitude of the landlubbers, but younger children will like the rhymes and the comic pictures.

Highly enjoyable, original and very very pretty.


Good Little Wolf

Rolf is a wolf.  A GOOD little wolf.  His best friend is the elderly Mrs Boggins, he likes baking cakes, eats all his vegetables and is always kind to his friends.  He hopes that he will never meet a real live big BAD wolf….

Sometimes, pictures speak louder than words.

This book is a visual triumph and another example of how words and pictures interact to create the whole text.  It begins with a disembodied voice asking if everyone is sitting quietly.  The group consists of Little Red Riding Hood, a woodcutter, three little pigs, and Rolf.  For adults who know the texts, a faint whiff of suspicion is evoked at this point, and never really goes away.  The big bad wolf, as seen above, is big, dark, and deliciously scary.  He inspects Rolf to ascertain if he really is a wolf (including a comic sniff of his bottom) and then gives him the task of proving himself.  Rolf is not especially good at howling, or blowing down his best friend’s house, but the big bad wolf has one final suggestion…  and it involves a knife and fork.

The brilliance of this book lies in what is left unsaid.  The knife and fork is the only clue to the wolf’s intentions and the reader’s need to decode the story continues until the very last page and an ending that is not only genuinely surprising but, in this day and age, very, very brave.   And funny.  Wickedly so.

Good Little Wolf was shortlisted for the 2012 Waterstones Children’s Book Prize and is Nadia Shireen’s first book; a highly accomplished debut.  It would be best avoided for the under-3s: the humour is subtle, there is a lot of deduction required from the pictures, and the ending may not suit the sensitive, but with older preschoolers and schoolchildren it will no doubt prove very popular.

Visually arresting, morally intriguing and with a sting in the tail, this is well worth a read.

And if you so wish, you too can learn how to draw wolves


Waterstones Children’s Book Prize Winner

[Guardian Children’s Books article about the win]

In slightly belated news The Pirates Next Door  by Aardman animator Jonny Duddle has been named not only as the section winner but as the overall winner of the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize 2012.  It is the first picture book to win the prize and it is great to see a book for younger children scooping such an accolade.

Have you read it? If so, chime in on the comments and let us know what you think. It’s on its way to us and a review will follow shortly.


Waterstones Children’s Book Prize 2012

The shortlist for the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize 2012 has now been released.

In the Picture Book category for readers under 5, the following books have been chosen:

I Want My Hat Back by Jon Kassen

A Bit Lost by Chris Haughton

The Pirates Next Door by Jonny Duddle

Good Little Wolf by Nadia Shireen

I Don’t Want to Be a Pea by Ann Bonwill and Simon Rickerty

No! by Marta Altes

Hopefully some reviews of those books as yet unreviewed will follow shortly!