Wonderment and Warning

IMG_1259

Jeannie Baker’s new picture book Circle (Walker Books 2016) has been balanced on the top of the review pile for a few weeks now. It’s been hard to ignore in the gloom of an Auckland winter – a large and luscious hardback, it’s cover sings of tropical coastlands far, far away. But that’s the thing with Baker’s work; always the high blue sky, lush greens, red earth. A palette drawn from the natural world.

IMG_1251

For the last 30 years, Jeannie Baker has been telling stories of nature, community and belonging. Her 14 illustrated children’s books are implicit with cautionary messages about population pressure, ecological vulnerability and cultural tolerance. Baker’s award-winning work includes “Window”, Home, “Mirror”, “Millicent” and “Where the Forest Meets the Sea.”

Baker uses an eclectic mix of materials and found objects to create richly detailed collage. Her miniature, shallow relief panoramas are made from tiny scraps of material; earth, wool, down, grass, leaves, feathers and fabric. Printed as photo-collage, they are enchanting.

IMG_1255

Baker’s books are generally wordless, the pictures a gentle visual narrative. Our favourite is Window (Walker Books 1991), which was shortlisted for the prestigious Kate Greenaway medal. It documents the development in a boy’s neighbourhood from rural idyll to conurbation. It’s a poignant story – the fall of nature and the passing of childhood are a potent mix.

IMG_1260

The detail is delightful. Baker plays with childhood talismans to tell the story of a boy growing up. Through the window we watch as the birds and bush surrender to urban sprawl and the land is inexorably tamed. In front of our eyes, the little boy outgrows superheroes and bunny-rabbits.

IMG_1261

Then there’s a girl. And he is gone.

IMG_1262

The story ends with the adult boy holding his own baby at a new window, the spectre of the city now distanced – for the time being.

IMG_1264

Mirror is another wordless book published to great acclaim in 2010 (Australian Picture Book of the Year). It contains two stories designed to be read separately but at the same time.

Two boys, one in Morocco and one in urban Australia, live very similar lives in two different cultures.  Opposing pages present two different pictures to compare and show how their lives, hopes and dreams are not altogether different.

IMG_1248

IMG_1249

In her new book Circle, Baker uses text alongside collage to tell the story of the bar-tailed Godwits, endangered migratory shorebirds that annually follow ancient invisible pathways from New Zealand and Australia across South East Asia to their breeding grounds in Alaska.

Baker spent ten years researching the godwits, joining a group of bird scientists in the remote Alaskan Tundra and the wetlands of the Yellow Sea.

IMG_1257

Circle celebrates the wonder of the epic journey these tiny birds take, but more it’s a gentle assertion of the interconnectedness of our world and the collective challenge we face to preserve and protect nature in the face of global population pressure.

IMG_1253

The beautiful aerial seascapes and landscapes created for CIRCLE are currently on a two-year national tour of Australia.

IMG_1252

Baker’s next book project is Playing with Collage, an inspirational guide for children and adults.

Review – The Day No One Was Angry by Toon Tellegen and Marc Boutavant (Illustrator)

TDNOWA_Cover

Couldn’t resist sharing this unique little book published by Gecko Press 2014 written by Dutch author Toon Tellegen and illustrated by Marc Boutavant (France).

Twelve short philosophical tales with one thing in common – anger.  These are fables but there’s no moralising here.  There’s almost a flatness to the telling – a dozen vignettes that simply tell it like it is – be it sad, ridiculous or hilarious.  And don’t expect resolution or explanation either.  In fact, these tales gently and humorously explore anger – how it feels, what it is (and isn’t), how it comes and goes, its simplicity, its complexity, its futility.

The delightful cast of creatures variously encounter and experience anger in one form or another.  Every evening at sunset the hyrax climbs his hill and shouts at the sun “Don’t set!”  and wonders why the sun doesn’t listen.  He cries with anger and wastes hours obsessing about it but nothing changes, leading the hyrax to the big question – “does anyone ever listen?”  There’s an elephant who chastises himself about his desire to climb a tree.  His negative self-censure goes on as he climbs, then he gets so excited about transcending it that when he actually reaches the top he loses his balance and crashes to earth.

The day no one was angry_pf2_with HR p46-47

Beetle and earthworm fight about who is angrier with catastrophic results.  The hours pass and their anger abates they decide to celebrate the successful angry episode by going (most agreeably) to earthworm’s house for a bite to eat.  In another story, shrew visits squirrel and tests their friendship to the extremes by trying to rouse him to anger.  Even shrew’s threat of leaving doesn’t make squirrel angry but instead, as shrew indeed “vanishes into the forest”, ends up leaving both in emptiness and isolation.  Hedgehog tries writing “I am angry” down on a piece of bark to try and make himself feel angry with lukewarm results but indeed ends up cross when the wind snatches the bark from his paws.

Marc Boutavant (Around the World With Mouk) has created a beautiful woodland world with his incredible illustrations.  The palette is muted primaries and lots of black.  The detail in the characters’ expressions is perfectly captured, the woodland world is vibrant and alive.

This is the perfect read-aloud for early-middle graders and their grown-ups.  My seven-year old loves this book and carries it about. Her father isn’t so sure.  Either way, it’s been a good conversation starter about feelings and emotions but, more than that, this delightful book is a meditation on human emotion.  That anger is okay – it’s essential.  It’s how we know we’re alive.   And if that all sounds a little heavy – trust me, there’s nothing heavy about the simplicity of these creatures’ stories, the delightful and intricate illustrations and hand-feel of this book.  It’s a beauty.

Emerging Readers – From Picture Books to Junior Fiction

It’s an interesting time when children begin to expand their reading beyond the realms of the picture book.

My big kid spent years straddling these two reading worlds – stretching her new-found reading muscles in chapter books and returning the glorious delights and comforts of best-loved picture books.

While I encourage my kids into the delights of longer form reading, I think there’s great value in keeping up with picture books. Beginning readers are delighted by the illustrations, the colour, the simplicity, rhyme and rhythm. They feel confident reading and, if it’s an old favourite, know the words without really even reading them. This is truly delightful and ultimately, all about the love of story. My ten year old still enjoys curling up and listening while I read to her younger sibling. She’ll still select picture books from the library and I often find her engrossed in old favourites and more complex picture books I’ve left on her shelves.

Peer pressure is a factor that drives children to seek out “word books” as my seven- year-old describes them. I overheard her and a friend talking just a week or so ago.

T “Are you reading chapter books? Proper ones?

H “Yeah. I like Billie B Brown.”

 T “No that’s not a real chapter book. There’s no pictures in real chapter books, only those little black ones that aren’t coloured in. Just lots of little words. Billie B has big words in it and pictures. It’s not a real chapter book.”

 For my seven year old (an “emerging” reader), I try to encourage a reading range that spans picture books, school readers and early-middle fiction. Not to mention non-fiction titles with luscious layouts and glorious photos. Literacy experts and educators will always tell you that at this pivotal age, it’s about getting kids hooked on reading. So accessible, chiselled narratives with great illustrations at limited lengths are a pretty good bet. You want them to fall in love with reading, so woo them with the tried and trusted junior fiction greats but don’t overlook or underestimate books targeted specifically for this transitional level.

Being a book-obsessed control-freak, I plant what I consider great books at eye height on my 7-year-old’s shelves (“what about this one?”) and mostly she obliges by loving them. But when we hit the library it’s a free-for-all – she picks out obscure or underwhelming picture books based on the attractiveness of the cover illustration or character drawing. Shiny and glittery covers attract her (Rainbow Magic – aaaargh) and sometimes she’ll select something above her reading ability because she’s seen older kids read it. I just roll with it. My mantra? Sure. Try it.

Lately, we’ve discovered some great “inbetweeners” in the Aussie Bites, Nibbles and Chomps series – I’ve avoided these in the past cause they look trashy. But I’m just a grown-up book snob and have to get over myself. These colourful, lightweight, illustrated early chapter books are actually very good. They’re easy to read without being “dumbed down” and make beginning readers just want to keep reading. Identifiable by their bright and busy covers with the “nibble” out of the top, these books are the perfect length for this age group and written by some acclaimed writers like as Urusla Dubosarsky and Tim Winton. She loves them. The deal with our night-time reading ritual is this – she reads to me for a bit then I take a turn, reading aloud from the same title or from something else we have on the go. Tired by this hour, she usually can’t wait for me to take over. But the Aussie Nibbles have hit the mark and she relentlessly reads on. Joy.

urusla's the deep end

We’ve also enjoyed (bow, scrape) Kate DiCamillo’s Mercy Watson series (beautiful, bright and funny) and the Ivy and Bean series by Annie Barrows. Other great books for emerging readers the multitude of titles in the I CAN READ series “widely recognised as the premier line of beginning readers.” (Harper Collins). This series has a rating of 1-4 and ranges from “Sharing My First Reading” then “Beginning Reading”, “Reading with Help”, “Reading Alone” through to “Advanced Reading”. These are classics by award winning authors and illustrators. We love “Little Bear” by Else Holmelund Minarik and Maurice Sendak and “Frog and Toad” by Arnold Lobel.  The marvellous Fancy Nancy and Amelia Bedelia titles are other favourites.  Sara Pennypacker’s Clementine series was a hit as was (I hate to say it because it’s not a “real chapter book”) Billie B Brown. If this is all sounding a little girl orientated – check out the screeds of recommendations on my Junior Fiction – Enticing Boys and Amusing Girls Page.)

boy reading

Of course, some kids take to reading more readily than others. But what if you’ve got a reluctant reader? My ten year old was definitely in this category. I’d be lying if I said this hadn’t aggravated me at times. (After all, I’ve read to that kid every day since birth! She has to love books! How could she not? All her friends are reading. Why won’t she? Is something wrong?) I managed (just) to curb my tendency to over-think and over-parent my first-born and just kept reading to her – long after all her friends were reading independently. We’d curl up together before her bedtime and I’d read a few chapters of something brilliant. It was delicious time. Now she’s a fully-fledged independent reader we still have this ritual – she reads in bed while I deal to the sibling factor, then I come in and I read to her from a book we’ve chosen together. Sometimes we take turns in reading it aloud. Either way, it’s still special time together and I’m aware that one day soon it’ll probably come to an end. Carpe Diem.

There are tons of great options, best lists and websites galore out there. The Guardian (UK) offer best children’s books lists at all ages. Here, most usefully is their best children’s books 5-7 years.  For boys? This guide from PBSparents lists beginning reader books appealing (mostly) to boys.  Great Schools list a best first book series here.  Scholastic list popular series for 6-7 year olds and have a useful page on reading development and advice about first chapter books. Goodreads have a list worth reading (among others) – “What Book Got You Hooked?

My advice is, if you have a reluctant reader, don’t panic. It’ll happen. Find books you think they’ll love, let them choose. Consider their interests and find fiction and non-fiction in the subject area. Leave books lying about. Consult un-missable book lists – check out my listmania page – JUNIOR FICTION – ENTICING BOYS AND AMUSING GIRLS for for suggested titles for this age-group. Don’t overlook comic series, graphic novels and audio books. Keep homework and compulsory reading sessions short and time them well (fed, fresh, free from distraction). And continue to enjoy the closeness that comes from sharing a book together. It will end all too soon.

Beginning

This blog is borne of my passion for children’s books.  I collect vicariously, buying myself children’s books in the guise of buying them for my children – I unashamedly declare that re-discovering children’s books is one of the best things about becoming a parent.  My children’s book-shelves are groaning with glorious finds both old and new – some are from my own childhood, there are classics and contemporaries, mistakes and delightful discoveries.

Our books come from all over;  the library, small independent booksellers like the fabulous Children’s Bookshop in Wellington, big commercial retailers, second-hand stores and on-line. I’m the one under the book-stall trestle table at the school fair, scrabbling in the dusty boxes.  I’ve made crazy Ebay purchases of titles withdrawn from a U.S. Mid-Western library for a buck and paid ten times that in air-freight.  I give judiciously and receive with joy.  I’m constantly asked to recommend titles and there’s nothing I enjoy more than having a good think about the age, reading ability and interests of the child and coming up with a potential hit.

I’m delighted that the challenge of finding books for my own little readers constantly changes – not only as they grow in maturity and reading ability, but also as their interests and personalities develop. To read with my children is a time for closeness and sharing, to see them curl up and read alone for the first (and second and third..) time is a gratifying rush.  And their choices aren’t always what I consider “good” books.  In the end – it’s about finding delight and solace in books.  I want my children to enjoy reading.  Anything.  Yes we all know that reading and writing go hand in hand and the many and varied positive impacts that reading has on children from an educational perspective.  But more than that, books are reliable companions throughout life’s ups and downs.  We all remember the great books of our childhoods.  Sometimes we carry a part of them with us for life.  Whether a comic, an e-book, a picture book, an audio book, a series – a book is a place to learn, a place to hide, a part of the ancient human tradition of storytelling; a drum, a shell, a bonfire on a hill-top.

I’ve been wondering how best to approach this blog.  I thought of categories by age groups, gender, reading challenges and setbacks, new books, old books.  But I think I like the feel of something more random – just where my head’s at, what’s piqued my interest or provoked thought.  So bear with this blog newbie and be rewarded with insightful reviews, musings, recommendations and conversation about all things kid-lit.  I can’t promise it won’t be a little New Zealand-centric.  I’m so proud of our writers and publishers who champion stories for children – particularly the fabulous Gecko Press who consistently treat us to “curiously good books from around the world.”

Gah – this is starting to sound like advertorial.  So enough blather and onto the books.

Best, Louise