Oxford Owl books

Oxford Owl is a tremendous resource from Oxford University Press which allows access to hundreds of ebooks for all reading levels.

I naturally gravitated towards the picture book selection and was delighted to see that several Winnie the Witch titles were available. Winnie’s Amazing Pumpkin is particularly fun (and seasonal) with Winnie casting a spell on her garden in order to grow her favourite vegetable, with enjoyably haywire results.


Two other titles also stand out in terms of art and story. Richard Byrne’s This Book Belongs to Aye-Aye puts a little-known animal under the spotlight. Aye-Aye is told by the other animals in his class that he isn’t cute enough to feature in a picture book, but when a new competition is announced he sees a chance to make his dream come true. Children will enjoy being outraged at the naughty rabbits’ attempts to thwart Aye-Aye and will be satisfied with our hero’s rightful reward for being good and helpful. As a bonus there are also facts about aye-ayes and instructions on how to make your own paper hat.


Christopher Nibble by Charlotte Middleton is a very cute book about a guinea pig who faces a dilemma when there is a dandelion leaf shortage. The story has a gentle message about sustainability and the collage-oriented artwork is sophisticated but uncluttered. I liked that Christopher does online shopping for dandelions before making a trip to the library to learn how to grow dandelions – a neat nod to contemporary habits (both digital reading and physical books).


Join at http://www.oxfordowl.co.uk/for-home/reading-owl/ to read the e-book editions. 

Winnie’s Amazing Pumpkin, by Korky Paul, This Book Belongs to Aye-Aye, by Richard Byrne, and Christopher Nibble, by Charlotte Middleton, all published by Oxford University Press, also available now in print.

Quentin Blake: Inside Stories


Illustration has found a new home near Kings Cross and this inaugural Quentin Blake exhibition is the perfect housewarming.

It is impossible to separate Blake from his magical and fruitful collaboration with Roald Dahl, and a good chunk of the work on show is from such classics as The Twits and The BFG. Alongside this though, we see storyboards from Blake’s own wordless book Clown and his riotously colourful illustrations for the Folio Society edition of Voltaire’s Candide.

For me, the highlight of the exhibition was a look at his work on Michael Rosen’s The Sad Book, an exploration of Rosen’s grief following the death of his son EddieNowhere is the power of Blake’s illustration and intuition felt more powerfully than in the sequence of snapshots of Eddie’s life, where the final frame on the page is left heart-breakingly blank.


In the last room there is a film of Blake in his workshop and a space for visitors to explore the books featured in the exhibition. Although the thoughtful curation of Blake’s work makes it more than worthwhile, I did wonder if more space at the fledgling gallery could’ve been opened up (there did seem to be additional rooms not in use).

However, Blake’s work seems so perfectly-formed that there is a real, rare pleasure in glimpsing the method behind it. I look forward to seeing what the gallery offers next.

Quentin Blake: Inside Stories runs at the House of Illustration until 2nd November.


Five Nonsense Poems; Five Poems about Teachers

image “Nonsense wakes up the brain cells,” Dr Seuss once said. Children’s first foray into the joys of language comes from the simple rhymes and verses – the poetry – we later learn to dismiss as infantile babble. Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll knew how our minds create meaning from basic, suggestive sounds. A poet’s delight in the crackle and fizz of combining certain syllables is how verbal invention happens.

Five Nonsense Poems, by Candlestick Press, owes much to Carroll’s joy in coining neologisms. Spike Milligan’s ‘The Squirdle’ invites children to imagine what such a creature may be: “I thought I saw a Squirdle / I think I thought I saw / I think I thunk I thought / I saw a Squirdle by my door”. Pauline Clarke’s ‘My Name Is…’ plays with children’s delight in naming things through pairing familiar words and actions in surreal combinations, “My name is Sluggery-wuggery / My name is Worms-for-tea / My name is Swallow-the-table-leg / My name is Drink-the-sea.”

 The menagerie of imaginary creatures continues with an anonymous Scots dialect poem about an “awesome beast” called the horny-goloch (“Soople and scaly / It has twa horns, an a hantle o’ feet / An a forkie tailie”).

In all these poems children are given the power to construct exaggerated beings; to create them, laugh at them and dispel any fear, even as they bring them to life. After all, who could be afraid of a horny-goloch? If we consider one of the most-loved picture books of recent times, Julia Donaldson’s The Gruffalo, it’s the tiny mouse’s act of reciting descriptions of the giant beast that keeps danger at bay.

Carol Ann Duffy’s poem ‘Hotel’ completes this delightful collection. Here we are given an account of two cows behaving as a pair of old grannies might. They “swan” into the Hotel and have “tea and toast” before taking the lift upstairs to bed. A nice reminder that there is little funnier than the anthropomorphisation of animals.

imageThe slim pamphlet is wonderfully designed with bold but unobtrusive illustrations. It is one of five new children’s “mini-anthologies” that Candlestick Press has put together. The pamphlets come with an envelope and are intended to be given as a gift in place of a conventional card, and the neat package is completed with an illustrated bookmark and sticker. As a thoughtful bonus, there is a page at the back of each pamphlet where children are prompted to write their own verse. Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy calls the pamphlet-card “the most original way of delivering poetry since Poems on the Underground”.

The other new anthology reviewed here is Five Poems about Teachers. It is a nice mix of poems which are lively and fun, capturing the unruly spirit of schoolkids, and thoughtful, longer poems looking at the unique obstacles and responsibilities of the teaching life. It leads off with a limerick: “There once was a teacher from Leeds / Who swallowed a packet of seeds. / In less than an hour / Her nose was a flower / And her hair was a posy of weeds.”

John Hegley’s ‘One day while we were getting out our rough books’ will strike a chord with teachers. It recreates the daily frustrations of maintaining classroom authority, the size of text growing larger the closer the teacher to breaking point.

The most interesting poem, ‘Please Mrs Butler’, by children’s author (and former teacher) Allan Ahlberg, alternates between the pleas of a picked-on pupil and the increasingly evasive and surreal deflections of a teacher who doesn’t seem to be paying enough attention to the class bully. “Lock yourself in the cupboard, dear. / Run away to sea. / Do whatever you can, my flower. / But don’t ask me!”

An ideal collection to send to children on their holidays, or to a teacher friend celebrating Michael Gove’s exit from the Department for Education. Indeed, the beauty of these trim volumes is that they engage the reader of any age.

You can buy these volumes on Candlestick Press’ website: http://www.candlestickpress.co.uk/

This review also appears in the 1st edition of Lunar Poetry. Learn all about this new poetry publication, and get hold of a copy here: http://poetrymonthly.wordpress.com/

Freddy and the Pig; Wolf Man



Barrington Stoke have added two beastly good new titles to their Red Squirrel Books imprint.

Wolf Man, by Michael Rosen, takes us straight into the action. Wolf Man has escaped, and everyone is terrified, including the army, who are hiding in dustbins. Where will Wolf Man’s rampage end? The anti-climax – Wolf Man needs to use the toilet – will have readers laughing out loud.

As you’d expect from master storyteller Rosen, the story is well-paced and just the right amount of scary (I love the cut-out claw marks on the cover). Chris Mould’s frantic, furry Wolf Man is wonderfully hideous and the predominantly orange, blue and green palette is lively and distinctive.

In Charlie Higson’s Freddy and the Pig, Freddy sends a pig to school in his place and whilst Freddy becomes unhealthy and useless playing video games all day, the pig flourishes and becomes the perfect child. So much so that Freddy is sold to a vegetarian family where he can roll around in the mud all day and the pig goes on to graduate from University and become an MP. (Insert your own comparisons here.)

The moral that we don’t always know what is best for us feels fresh and not didactic. There are echoes of Anthony Browne’s excellent Piggybook – where the males of a household turn into pigs after behaving like lazy animals – though Freddy doesn’t quite go the whole hog. Mark Chambers’ illustrations bring the surreal comedy of the story to life, with lots of added visual details (I liked the pig-shaped pencil case).

Fun, thrilling, and with the attention to accessible storytelling that you’d expect from Red Squirrel Books.

Wolf Man, by Michael Rosen and Chris Mould, and Freddy and the Pig, by Charlie Higson and Mark Chambers, published by Barrington Stoke, are available now.



Elys Dolan’s picture book Weasels is an anarchic yarn about weasels plotting world domination. What do parents at the coalface of the bedtime story make of it? Daddy and daughter David and Annie (5), who live in North London, share their thoughts…

Annie and I were both very amused by the illustrations in Weasels. The animals interacting with each other over the whole page gave the book an animated feel like an 1980s platform computer game.

I asked Annie what she thought about the book: ‘I like it very much. The drawings are pretty good.’

I was the one doing most of the reading with Annie helping a bit. I found the dialogue distributed across the whole page made it hard to get a good storytelling flow going.

This has bothered me in the past with other books where narrative and dialogue are spread over the page. However, with Weasels it certainly adds to the chaos and no two readings will follow the same order. Annie enjoyed this aspect of the book: ‘I quite like all the different things that are going on at the same time.’

I enjoyed some of the stuff which went over Annie’s head. Caffeine addiction and health and safety rules seemed to suit the weasels.

Annie’s favourite part was the bit where one of the weasels started transforming into a monster (‘I told you not to drink that Professor’, a colleague tells him).

Annie’s rating ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
David’s rating ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Weasels, by Elys Dolan, published by Nosy Crow, is available now.


Sam’s Pet Temper

imageEver had trouble controlling your temper?

Sam is tired of waiting his turn. One day in the playground he gets so mad and impatient that he attracts a Temper, who jumps into the fray and frightens all the other children away.

At first Sam and the boisterous Temper are best friends as they pull pranks and everything goes their way. But soon Sam’s Temper starts to make life difficult for him at home and at school. He terrorises Sam’s family and classmates and when Sam tries to explain the Temper is to blame he is told he must learn to control it.


Sangeeta Bhadra’s clever story boasts a wonderful variety of storytelling techniques as she creates the childish joys and conflicts of Sam’s world.

I love Marion Arbona’s pencil work portrayal of the Temper as a grinning Cheshire Cat-style character. There is a fantastic texture to her backgrounds and the palette used is striking – the Temper as an extension of Sam is denoted by the matching red, black and white colour scheme.

A beautiful ‘early emotions’ book that helps children understand their feelings and reminds us all not to let our bad moods get the best of us. So next time you feel a tantrum coming on, tame your temper like Sam does in the dramatic final spreads – get a tight grip on it, count to 10, say the alphabet backwards…Unless you want to be responsible for a new pet.

Sam’s Pet Temper, by Sangeeta  Bhadra and Marion Arbona, published by Kids Can Press, will be available in the UK next year.




Happy Hunting

imageRead for RNIB Day and Walker Books are celebrating the 25th anniversary of the Michael Rosen and Helen Oxenbury classic We’re Going on a Bear Hunt by organising their very own mass bear hunt. (We’re not afraid…)

The Biggest Ever Bear Hunt will take place on Tuesday 15th July and will consist of a reading lesson with renowned author Rosen.

This curriculum approved reading lesson – created by education specialist Yellow Door – will be suitable for ages three to seven. It will be fully accessible to children who are blind and partially sighted, so that they can join in the adventure too.


On the day, over 1000 school children will come together at Charter Hall in Colchester in an attempt to break the Guinness World Record™ for the biggest reading lesson.

We’re Going on a Bear Hunt – which lends itself to boisterous reading and dramatic action – is the perfect choice for a big group to enjoy together.

Everyone can join in the fun via a web stream of the event which will be broadcast live at http://www.jointhebearhunt.com/rnib (also available on demand after the event).

In order to take part, children and their teddy bear friends are asked to donate £1 each. Sign up your intrepid bear hunters here: http://readforrnib.org.uk/fundraise/join-bear-hunt/bear-hunt-registration-form/

All proceeds will go to Read for RNIB Day to support the RNIB’s vital work. You can find out more about what they do here http://readforrnib.org.uk/about/rnib/.

Calling all schools, nurseries, mums and dads.

We’re Going on a Bear Hunt. Are you coming?


Itch Scritch Scratch; All I Said Was


20140526-224651-82011172.jpgI love picture books: art and text combine to tell a story. However, sometimes the busy design can make it difficult for an adult with dyslexia to share the story with a child.

Enter the fantastic Red Squirrel Books imprint from Barrington Stoke. In collaboration with authors and illustrators, Red Squirrel Books has created two great new picture books which have the added bonus of clear text and uncluttered backgrounds.


Itch Scritch Scratch by Eleanor Updale is a fun, rhyming story about that dreaded childhood nuisance – nits! Witness one mother’s war against these fiends as she employs increasingly drastic methods including shampoos, chemicals, the vacuum cleaner, a jar of mayonnaise…Sarah Horne’s bright, cartoonish illustrations add to the fantastic sense of mayhem.

20140526-225550-82550791.jpgMichael Morpurgo’s All I Said Was is a wonderful tale about a bird and a boy that switch places. At first the boy is delighted to be able to fly but life as a bird is dangerous and he misses the safe freedom of reading in his room. Will the bird swap back or is the boy stuck? A clever story about the power of imagination is nicely accompanied by gorgeous watercolours by Ross Collins.

Red Squirrel Books tick all the boxes – imaginative stories, great artwork and accessibility. There really is nothing better than words and images coming together to help readers soar.


Itch Scritch Scratch by Eleanor Updale and Sarah Horne, and All I Said Was by Michael Morpurgo and Ross Collins, published by Barrington Stoke, are available now.




Interview: Josée Bisaillon


front-backJosée Bisaillon, illustrator of A Fish Named Glub, talks to me about her work.

You work in a lot of different mediums, but what is it you like in particular about illustrating picture books?

It’s really difficult to work on a picture book, to capture the right mood, to make the perfect characters, and to be consistent throughout the entire book. But even though it’s so much work, it’s a lot of fun.

I guess what I like most is to enter a different world each time. When I start illustrating a picture book, I feel like I’m building a house. I have to ‘build’ something that children and their parents will feel comfortable in. process2Using different mediums allows me to use different materials to build my houses. That’s why sometimes my work is different from one book to another. Sometimes I feel like the story would need more collages to be bolder, sometimes more ink and watercolor to make it softer, for example.

I love to think that there are actually real children around the world that are going to enjoy my work. It’s so gratifying, and it still feels like a dream come true.

You’ve recently worked on the Hansel and Gretel story for a Korean picture book (images below). What do you think the continuing appeal of fairy tales is? Is your approach to illustrating a well known tale different to working with original material?

I don’t know what we like so much about the old fairy tales. They are always a bit scarier and my kids love them. Maybe we like them because it brings back good memories, or because they are just really well written.


When I began working on Hansel and Gretel, I was very honoured, but I was petrified. It was like touching a sacred story. It has been illustrated so many times that I was afraid of adding nothing new to the story. I looked at a lot (and I mean a lot) of illustrations from previous versions of Hansel and Gretel and I felt overwhelmed by them, so I decided not to look at them anymore and I began sketching and trying to illustrating this as if it was a brand new story. I made it with my style and my vision, and I think it worked in the end.

How important was reading to you when you were growing up?

I remember going to the library and coming back home with a ton of books, but apart from that I don’t recall my parents reading to me, even though I’m sure they did. There were always books in my house. When I was a teenager my favourites were The Babysitters Club books and gamebooks (choose your own adventure books). I still read every day before going to bed.

How important is reading to your own children?

It’s really, really important. My husband and I began reading to them when they were very young, around 2 or 3 months. I don’t know if it’s because of that, but the three of them really enjoy picture books. They help to develop their creativity, their vocabulary and their patience. They always ask for a story, we have to read to them before bed, and I love it.



Not Now, Bernard

imageBernard can’t seem to get the attention of his busy parents, even when he tries to tell them there is a monster in the garden.

As a child David McKee’s story terrified me – the idea that I might get eaten by a monster (as happens to poor Bernard) and, even worse, that my parents wouldn’t even notice.

This story is often interpreted as a cautionary tale for parents – neglect your children and they will become monsters – or a very clever allegory for monstrous childish emotion, in the vein of Where The Wild Things Are.

Re-reading as an adult, I see a lot of wisdom and humour in this classic story. David McKee is a master of eerie unpredictability (he is the creator of Mr Benn, King Rollo and the iconic Elmer the patchwork elephant series). Unlike Elmer, who is cursed with standing out, Bernard struggles to be noticed.


Children will enjoy the refrain of ‘Not now, Bernard’, and will delight at the sheer absurdity of the monster, tucked up in bed in place of Bernard, utterly bewildered.

‘But I’m a monster’.

‘Not now, Bernard’, Bernard’s mother says, as she turns off the light.


Not Now, Bernard, by David McKee, published by Andersen Press, is available now.