Five Great Books for Autumn


Autumn is my favourite season. The evenings are getting darker and colder and all the better to snuggle up to a book with (ideally clutching a mug of hot chocolate). Here are five top picks to fire the imagination and celebrate this wonderful time of year.

The days may be shorter but this fantastic themed sticker activity book will help you get the most out of them. Go on a walk through the leaves with The Gruffalo Autumn Nature Trail and explore the changing colours of the season.

The Gruffalo Autumn Nature Trail, by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler, published by Macmillan, is available now.

 A veritable classic about a skeleton family – Big Skeleton, Little Skeleton and Dog Skeleton – who live in a dark, dark house on a dark, dark hill and set out to scare on a dark, dark night…The first in the much-loved series by Janet and Allen Ahlberg, Funnybones is a fantastic book for a fun Halloween.

Funnybones by Janet and Allen Ahlberg, published by Puffin, is available now.

Another perfect character for revelling in Halloween’s rituals and superstitions is Winnie the Witch. In this instalment of the hilarious, long-running series, Winnie casts a spell to change the colour of her black cat Wilbur, so she can stop falling over him in her black house…But, of course, things don’t quite go to plan.

Winnie the Witch, by Valerie Thomas and Korky Paul, published by Oxford University Press, is available now.

The Dark, by Lemony Snicket and Jon Klassen, is a very special picture book to discover at any time of year but even more so now, as our imaginations are sparked by tales of ghosts and ghouls. An inspired story about a little boy confronting his fear of the dark, this is perfect for reading under a blanket with a trusty torch.

The Dark, by Lemony Snicket and Jon Klassen, published by Orchard Books, is available now.

Last but not least we come to a gorgeous retelling of Hansel and Gretel, the ultimate frightening fairytale with evil witches and children lost in the forest. The story is a familiar one, but the atmospheric use of paper cut-outs and transparent paper will dazzle you.

Hansel and Gretel, by Sybille Schenker, published by Minedition, is available now.

When I Was Born

IMG_1153 Quite simply, the picture books of author Isabel MInhos Martins and illustrator Madalena Matoso are astonishingly good. Their collaborations are distinctive and bold, light and playful. They take as their starting point an open-ended question or idea – the sort of thing that a child might be curious about – and then joyfully attack it from many imaginative angles.

A good place to start is When I Was Born, where they explore first discoveries and the joys of the senses. The illustrations are bright and busy and the blocks of colour work to great effect against a black and white background.

There is plenty to keep a young reader entertained and adults will enjoy remembering what it was like when ‘everything was new’.

Michael Rosen recently suggested that an easy way of engaging a child was to wonder out loud with them. When I Was Born is a book that will allow you to start wondering together.

When I Was Born, by Isabel MInhos Martins and Madalena Matoso, published by Tate Publishing, is available now.

Rules of Summer

Shaun Tan is one of my favourite artists. His picture books such as The Red Tree and The Arrival describe the human experience in spare language and stunning, atmospheric imagery.

Rules of Summer follows two young brothers over the course of a summer, capturing the headiness of long, hot school holidays and the rituals and customs of children’s imaginative play.

imageI recently went back to the book after it was shortlisted for this year’s Kate Greenaway Medal for illustration. It was every bit as evocative as I remembered.

The unique and detailed illustrations are rendered in a thick acrylic paint that creates an incredible texture. There is a wonderful depth of colour as the story moves from bleached landscapes to dark, surreal moodscapes.

This is a story that lives and breathes, so strongly does it conjure that time in our lives – set loose from school and home – when the only rules that mattered where the ones we made up.

Rules of Summer, by Shaun Tan, published by Hodder Children’s Books, is available now.

Happy New Year

imageI love catching up with my nieces, nephews and assorted little ones over Christmas. I was delighted to hear that my nephew’s most-loved present was The Roald Dahl Treasury (The BFG is his favourite story) and my neice’s favourite gift was her Animal Encyclopedia (which we consulted after dinner when my brother-in-law was described as a ‘sloth’ lying on the couch).

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As pleased as I was to hear that they enjoyed the books more than other presents, I did wonder – do we put so much scrutiny on children’s reading habits that they feel they have to like books in order to impress us? Do they know they’ll please us more if they tell us they prefer them to their Xbox? Also, when it comes to gifting books, do we push the ‘old’ authors too much as a safe choice for us instead of taking a risk on a new book?

imageMeeting my friend’s 15-month-old girl for the first time, I gave her the stunning How to Hide a Lion by Helen Stephens as a present. She held the book up, looked at the cover, turned it around and upside down, and then pointed at herself and then at her mum to be read to. Her mum read a page and then she wanted the book back, which she then passed around the table for us all to admire. It was obvious that she already had a strong, innate interest in physical books.

I suppose it can only be a positive thing if we, as adults, place a high value on books and communicate this – consciously or subconsciously – to the young readers in our lives. And I like to think that it is our duty to celebrate the authors we loved as children, to pass on a storytellling heritage, as long kids still enjoy them and we allow them to discover new authors and explore their own interests.

So this year I’ll continue to ponder about the books we create for children and how they support their development, and children, I hope, unsupervised and unanalysed and unabashed, will keep reading the material they like the most.

How to Hide a Lion, by Helen Stephens, published by Alison Green Books, The Roald Dahl Treasury, published by Puffin, and Animal Encyclopedia, published by National Geographic Society, are available now.

Show Me a Shadow

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A girl and her cat become curious about their shadows – the way they copy their movements, yet change shape and size. What is the secret behind them? They decide to grab a torch and start experimenting…

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Hye Won Yeom’s expressive, delightful illustrations remind me of Raymond Briggs’ style. The lively text explains the fun science behind shadows and takes the fear out of darkness for young readers, making a game of the interplay of light and shade.

Show Me a Shadow is the perfect book to explore as the winter nights draw in.

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Show Me a Shadow, by Hee Jeong Yun and Hye Won Yeum (translated into English by Grace Bowman), published by Ginger Books, is available now.

Hector and the Big Bad Knight

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Hector and the Big Bad Knight, by Alex T. Smith, is a fun adventure with knights and dragons. What did  Emily and Colin and their kids Heidi (5) and Finn (3) make of it?

Hector and the Big Bad Knight is an engaging and suitably silly quest for both parents and children to enjoy. Beautifully illustrated by the author Alex T. Smith, Heidi and Finn delighted in cheering on the plucky, sharp Hector as he refused to let the arrogant, pompous and entitled knight have it all his own way.

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The classic tale of the small, downtrodden underdog turning the tables on the powerful, using his wits (not to mention the willing sidekick Norman the chicken) will never get old. The pleasing mix of Hector’s familiar supplies – crisps, scissors and Granny’s umbrella – with the fantastical medieval setting, helps to suggest to young readers that no matter what problems they face or how insignificant they may feel in this strange, mixed-up world we all live in, there is always the possibility of a plan!

While the narrative is a little unclear at times and had to be explained in parts, the illustrations assured this book’s success in our house. Very similar to Julia Donaldson’s Jack and the Flumflum Tree, but perhaps with less successful rhyming sections, it is a good yarn that in our family appealed to boys and girls alike.

imageStar rating by Heidi and Finn (in a rare moment of agreement):

★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Hector and the Big Bad Knight, by Alex T. Smith, published by Scholastic, is available now.

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.

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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.

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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).

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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.