Wonderment and Warning

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Then there’s a girl. And he is gone.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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

First Picture Books – Favourites for the Very Young

The first of Australian author Mem Fox’s ten read-aloud commandments is to “Spend at least ten wildly happy minutes every day reading aloud. From birth!” The practice of reading to your child from birth has, of course, been widely lauded by educators and psychologists. But what I love about Mem’s angle is that she fundamentally views reading to children as an opportunity for sharing and intimacy. As her tenth commandment states – “Please read aloud every day because you just adore being with your child, not because it’s the right thing to do.”

I read to my first born religiously. In the sleep-deprived miasma that was largely my experience of early motherhood, reading was part of my routine.   Routine was control. Control was one of the many tenets of my being vaporised at conception. And so, “My Tiger Roars” by Melanie Walsh became mandatory fare. my tiger roarsWhy this from among the thousands? It still puzzles me. Regardless, it did tick some boxes; a board book (to withstand the rigours of grabby little hands and slobbery jaws). Plenty of high-contrast patterns (in my pre-natal reading fervour I’d read somewhere that this was ‘developmentally appropriate’). Simple and colourful animal faces presumably designed to reflect the size of a babies face (yep, fun). Dubious text – “Munch Munch. My patchy panda bear eats his lunch.” With all due respect, you couldn’t pay me to read it again, even for the sake of nostalgia.

CILLA 1ST YEAR (2005) 249 - Version 2Experience has aligned me with Mem’s abundant wisdom. Babies and toddlers don’t care to be educated. They love being close, enjoying the rhythm and musicality of language. They delight in experiencing all that closeness brings – scent, hair, touch. Just as exciting are other tactile opportunities – a book can be pleasingly slapped, thrown, dropped or gummed.   Often it doesn’t matter what is read, just that it is read. Having said that, there will always be particular books that please and these will be requested – over and over and over again.

Before you find yourself stuck with some inherited or deceptively shiny bargain bin pap (and there’s plenty out there), here are some titles I recommend for babies and toddlers. Most are classics, some more recent – but all the books on this list have provided countless “wildly happy minutes” in our home.

giddy up let's rideGIDDY-UP!  LET’S RIDE!  By Flora McDonnell

Glorious full colour illustrations, the joy of this large format picture book is in the rhythm. Sit your small person astride a knee and take them riding with Flora.

PANTS by Giles Andreae and Nick Sharratpants

Vivid colour, simple rhythm and brilliantly silly. I fell in love with this book when I heard it performed by the famous Stu & his ukulele at the Wellington Library to a raucous group of delighted toddlers.

GOODNIGHT MOON by Margaret Wise Brown & illustrated by Clement Hurd

Goodnight_Moon-pictThis gentle homage to bedtime ritual is definitely conducive to sleep with its simple rhyme and soothing rhythm. Wise Brown’s little bunny bids goodnight to the real and imagined inhabitants of her world – a ‘comb and brush’ and a ‘bowl of mush’, to the ‘stars’ and ‘air’ and ‘noises everywhere’ – before settling down under the watchful eye of a knitting nanny. This bunny’s world is slightly surreal with its eclectic array of objects (and creatures), wild shifts in scale and old-school nursery vibe – you can almost smell the formaldehyde. Clement Hurd’s illustrations reflect this perfectly by pitching monochrome against acid-bright, gradually darkening page-by-page, as inevitably sleep comes down.

the runaway bunnyAlso by Margaret Wise Brown and Clement Hurd – THE RUNAWAY BUNNY.

This is a rhythmic and gentle mother-baby story. Essentially a game of verbal hide and seek, a steadfast Mother bunny assures her baby that wherever he goes; she will find a way to be with him. Again, Hurd’s illustrations are a perfect confluence of detail and simplicity.

dear zooDEAR ZOO by Rod Campbell

A perennial favourite, Dear Zoo builds anticipation and then satisfies absolutely just as it invites the reader to triumphantly recognise and name the hidden animal and fulfil the rhyming text. A triumph.

the elephant and the bad babyTHE ELEPHANT AND THE BAD BABY by Elfrida Vipont and Raymond Briggs

One day, and elephant offers a baby a ride through the town…

BROWN BEAR, BROWN BEAR, WHAT DO YOU SEE? By Bill Martin, Jr. and Eric brown bearCarle

Even as I think about this book my toe starts tapping. All the Rs – rhythm, rhyme and repetition. And the perfect denouement in a double page spread of cavorting, colourful, creature-children. Marvellous.

I KNOW A RHINO by Charles Fuge

I know a rhino This bright and appealing rhyming story is about the toys in a child’s life and the special roles they play. She takes tea with rhino, mud-fights with pig, tends to a sick dragon and indulges leopard in his penchant for fancy dress. This story is imbued with imagination and humour, brought to life with luminous and theatrical illustrations.

where's spotWHERE’S SPOT? Eric Hill

The delights of a simple game of hide-and-seek are explored in this bright and sturdy flap book.

PEEPO and EACH PEACH PEAR PLUM by Janet and Allen Ahlberg.

These are classics. In EACH PEACH PEAR PLUM, rhymed text and illustrations invite the reader toeach peach pear plum play ‘I spy’ with a cast of Mother Goose and other folklore characters.

Set in the 1940’s, PEEPO follows a baby through the day as he observes domestic life. With simple, rhythmic text and richly detailed illustrations – the real delight of this book is the series of holes peeping through to the next page. These lead the reader on to the next stage in the day, giving a hint of what is to come. peepo31Witty and charming – this is a perfect book for sharing.

MOG AND ME by Judith Kerr

mog and meWho can resist MOG the flawed feline? This is the first in a series of first Mog books for toddlers. This story captures the simple rhythms of a child’s day. Mog and her toddler begin their day together with a stretch and a wash. The child has to get dressed, “but Mog wears her fur all the time”.   Scenes of play follow with catnip, stacker blocks, a train and a trolley (with an alarmed looking Mog aboard). They eat, and then sleep. Together. Aw.

kiss goodnightKISS GOODNIGHT SAM by Amy Hest and Illustrated by Anita Jeram

Is it the warm autumnal palette used to create this cosy little home that defies the “dark and stormy night on Plum Street”? Is it the patient attention to bedtime ritual from a loving momma bear? Is it the way Jeram has so perfectly captured movement and expression in this intimate exchange? Whatever it is, there’s no denying the delicious sense of comfort and security this story engenders.

shirley hughesTHE NURSERY COLLECTION by Shirley Hughes

I’ll be writing more about Shirley Hughes who has been such a part of our early reading adventures. The Nursery Collection is a simple collection of stories that perfectly capture a child’s world. In these perfect picture books, a lively toddler and her baby brother discover and explore colour, shape & size, sound and opposites.

the very busy spiderTHE VERY BUSY SPIDER and THE VERY HUNGRY CATERPILLAR by Eric Carle

Yes, yes I know – another best kid’s books list with Eric Carle.   But these stories never lose appeal even after countless reads. They celebrate the natural world with a delightfully spare narrative that is both wondrous and wry. The Very Busy Spider has some clever texture to run little fingers and toes over and of course, the best thing about The Very Hungry Caterpillar is poking fingers in the ‘holes’ eaten by the insatiable insect.

ten little fingersTEN LITTLE FINGERS and TEN LITTLE TOES by Mem Fox and Helen Oxenbury

A simple poem celebrating the universal appeal of babies everywhere. Oxenbury’s soft and luscious watercolours capture their plump innocence perfectly.

meg and mogMEG AND MOG (series) by Helen Nicoll and Jan Pienkowski

My seven-year-old still delights in Meg and Mog – only these days she reads (recites!) them to me. First published in the 1970’s these stories are about Meg, a rather inept witch, her long-suffering Mog and friend Owl.   Simple and colourful with touches of comic art form – they will make little readers laugh out loud.

I love you just the way you areI LOVE YOU JUST THE WAY YOU ARE by Virginia Miller

Bartholomew Bear’s face is a kaleidoscope of toddler angst. He’s cold, doesn’t want to walk, won’t eat and hides at bedtime.   The only word he utters is “nah”. Repeatedly. Father George’s patience is beyond impressive. Calmly righting all the wrongs, he tells Baby Bear “I love you just the way you are.” Baby Bear rewards him with compliance. For a moment anyway…

WE’RE GOING ON A BEAR HUNT by Michael Rosen and Helen Oxenbury

we're going on a bear huntThis book still thrills my 7-year-old. A big bold story perfectly caught by Oxenbury’s brilliant illustrations, this book captures the anticipation and excitement of a family adventure. Indomitable, they squelch through mud, swish through grass, splash through water. They’re not scared. Until… Uh-uh! A narrow gloomy cave and… a bear! The clever double quick pacing that chases the family home is brilliant. And so is the snuggly ending.  Check out the beautiful pop-up edition.

owl babiesOWL BABIES by Martin Waddell and Illustrated by Patrick Benson

Three baby owls left alone while their mother is away hunting is the perfect setting for an exploration of anxiety and reassurance.   Benson’s simple but richly textured illustrations perfectly juxtapose the three fluffy innocents against the depths of night forest.

TThe Tiger who came for teaHE TIGER WHO CAME TO TEA by Judith Kerr

While Sophie and her mother are sitting down to tea one afternoon, the doorbell rings. A big, furry, stripy tiger has come for tea…and sandwiches, and buns, and biscuits…and eats all the food in the house until there’s nothing left to cook for Daddy’s supper. Conventional and at the same time anarchic, this is fabulous.

hairy maclaryHAIRY MACLARY FROM DONALDSON’S DAIRY by Lynley Dodd

Legendary in New Zealand, Dodd’s marvellous illustrations and mastery of complex rhyme make this (and other stories in this collection) unmissable fare.

And recently discovered…

THE NOISY BOOK by Soledad Bravithe noisy book

Bold, colourful and, well, noisy.

HANNAH’S NIGHT Written and illustrated by Komako Sakai.

This gentle story is about a little girl who wakes in the night and enjoys the quiet of her home, using her own resourcefulness to pass the time.  Beautiful.

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Picture Book Review – The Day the Crayons Quit by Drew Daywalt & Oliver Jeffers

indexAt 13,519 ratings, 4 and a bit stars and 1,957 reviews on Goodreads alone, you have to have had your head in a bucket not to have heard about this 2013 Choice Winner, released with a fanfare in 2013.  And here I go, adding my voice to the chorus.

My daughter was given The Day the Crayons Quit on her sixth birthday and it has been one of the most-requested titles in her (extensive) library ever since.  I must have read this at least a couple of hundred times by now.  Even though a slight sigh just made it’s way onto the page (see it?) I know it could’ve been worse.  For all I love Dr Seuss, it might have been Hop on Pop.  Or fairy-fare.  It’s a true test of a children’s picture book that it can prevail without quietly “disappearing” at the hands of a mind-numbed adult.  Okay – I admit I’ve sometimes accidentally turned two pages instead of one.

TDTCQ wheatThis is Daywalt’s first book – and it’s good. One day in class Duncan takes out his crayons and finds a stack of letters with his name on them.  Red complains of overwork and never getting a holiday – he has to colour hearts on Valentines and Santas at Christmas.   Pedant purple urges Duncan to colour more carefully.  Beige bends like the wheat he complains he’s relegated to colouring while big brown “gets all the bears, ponies and puppies”.

Gray TDTCQ white catis tired.  Gray mammals are pretty big mostly – whales and elephants and the like.  He suggests baby penguins or pebbles.  White feels empty because he’s not even really a colour and is only defined by filling in the spaces between things and black complains of only ever defining things and not filling in spaces.  Yellow and orange fight about who is the real colour of the sun.  Blue complains of such occupational overuse (big skies, rivers and oceans) TDTCQ pinkthat he’s too stubby to see over the railing in the crayon box.  Pink suffers from gender bias and longs to colour monsters and dinosaurs instead of princesses.  Peach is too embarrassed to leave the crayon box ever since Duncan tore off his wrapper.

So it’s not so much that the crayons quit (although that’s a catchy title).  There’s no collective conciousness here – more a litany of complaint.  And a few of the crayons complain about the same things (which is why sometimes I accidentally turn two pages instead of one).  Duncan obliges by drawing a double page spread that honours most of these requests (with the exception of red, gray and blue who, as my daughter delights in pointing out, just have to suck it up).  I personally love the black rainbow but then, I’m a grown up…

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Warm and clever, the story is brought alive by Jeffers’ brilliant monochromatic illustrations.  There’s a naive, scribbly kid-ness to his drawings, showcased by plenty of white space and quality production.  Despite my over-exposure to this book I still love the drawing of poor old beige crayon – bent like the wheat he so deplores colouring and I delight in my little girl’s chortling at poor old peach crayon, stripped naked and stuck in the box.

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Buy or borrow for a read-aloud 4-7 or independent reading 6 +.

Review of a Review

sidewalk flowersI’ve definitely been guilty of device distraction before now and will be again.  The 10-strong group of silent teenagers walking down Takapuna Beach last weekend all staring at their devices were guilty of it too but that’s a generational phenomenon I can only begin to comprehend.  Together alone.  It’s disturbing to witness any time but it’s particularly jarring in the context of parenting and caring for our very young.

This excellent Brain Pickings review by Maria Popova of the newly released picture book Sidewalk Flowers by award-winning poet JonArno Lawson and Sydney Smith (illustrator) is titled “An illustrated ode to presence and the everyday art of noticing in a culture of productivity and distraction”.

Must finish now and go and get down to floor-level with my children..

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

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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.

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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.

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