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).


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


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…


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.


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


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.


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.


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.

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.