Interplay in ‘the yes’ by Sarah Bee and Satoshi Kitamura

I have been aching to do another picture book in depth post for a while now. Whilst I know picture books aren’t the main focus of this blog, they are one of my great and genuine joys and they are something very, very important. Picture books are our introduction to literacy. They’re read by us in so many ways as our reading ability develops, and as such they have to work on a ridiculous amount of levels. They have to reward the adult reader. The child pre-literate. The child emerging literate. The child literate. And quite often they do that with maybe a handful of words, or none.

Picture books are extraordinary.

Front cover of 'the yes'

A) Front cover of ‘the yes’

And I think that the yes stands proud up there with the best of them. Continue reading

The King Of Space : Jonny Duddle

The King of SpaceThe King of Space by Jonny Duddle

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Well, this is adorable.

Jonny Duddle’s perhaps best known for his Pirates books, and indeed that’s where I know his name from. My library didn’t have those in but they did have this. And this is ace.

The King of Space is brilliant. It reads a little like a hybrid of the Eagle comics I used to steal from my brothers, and a Pixar movie; its round, full-cheeked and distinctly filmic artwork meshes up with some superb little details that feel resolutely British somehow, as though they may have fallen out of a Dan Dare or a PC 49 comic.

Rex lives on a Moog farm with his mum and dad in the middle of the Gamma quadrant. He may be little, but he has BIG plans. He is plotting to become THE KING OF SPACE. I feel capital letters are justified, it’s that sort of a thing. As he himself states on the title splash, “Soon the whole universe will know MY name!”.

This book is such a smile. It starts with the wide-eyed moog of the moog (basically a cow in space, strapped in with sensible straps so it doesn’t float away and a bug-eyed headlight-caught gaze. Basically brilliant), and builds from that point. The robot (sorry, WARBOT) admonishing Rex’s audience to clap, the ‘all-powerful on your own planet’ conversation, and a particularly lovely reveal fold out page towards the end of the book.

There is a million and one things to enjoy about this book. Rex himself says it best, with the luscious little sf in-joke of: “Resistance is futile” Get your hands on this.

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Open Very Carefully : Nicola O’Byrne & Nick Bromley

Open Very Carefully: A Book with BiteOpen Very Carefully: A Book with Bite by Nick Bromley

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I am thinking about Christmas and whether I focus on it on the blog a little with it being, well, the run up towards Christmas. The problem I have is that I think there’s not really any specific book I would reccomend you purchase as a present (for, I hope, if it were worth featuring, I would feature it irrespective of it’s present potential and of the time of year) and I’m not particularly timely with my reccomendations at times (what with being wed to my library and their purchasing patterns). So I think, perhaps, what I can and will do is this.

I will feature books like Open Very Carefully : A Book With Bite and I shall feature them because of what they do. And in a way, it’s through that ‘what they do’ that they earn their worth. One of the greatest things I could ask you to think about and to give to others if you can or want to, is a confidence with reading. I think sometimes we are afraid of reading, wrapping it up in an inapproachable mysticism and books full of dull and worthy ‘let’s learn to read today, kids!’. I learnt to read a long time ago, but I did not learn the difference between active and passive reading until fairly recently.

And that difference is embodied in books like this. Open Very Carefully is an imprint from the increasingly impressive Nosy Crow publishing house and it is, at first, a very simple looking picture book. The paper is weighty, the art fairly straightforward and as we go in, it appears we’ll be reading a book called ‘The Ugly Duckling’. But that title’s been scribbled across and the words: OPEN VERY CAREFULLY are scrawled across the double page spread.

(This is perhaps my only issue with Open Very Carefully in that it flirts on the edge of brilliance. I almost want it to go one step beyond – to have this ‘The Ugly Duckling’ as the front page spread instead of the actual cover. It’s a little bit back to front, with a front cover telling us what the book is inside and then we step back to read what it was and then we read what it is. I long for that front cover to be this spread with the wording wrapped around it like police hazard tape and daring us to go inside. It is so close to brilliant this book).

Once we start reading, we discover that the innocent story of The Ugly Duckling has been invaded. There is a CROCODILE in this book: “A Really big scary one!” This is when Open Very Carefully starts to make my heart sing. We have the Crocodile eating letters (“I think his favourite letters to eat are O and S”) which means that we have moments like: “St p! / Mr Cr c dile!” / Y u can’t eat the letter !”). We have to rock the book: “backwards and forwards” to rock the crocodile to sleep. This level of audience participation continues throughout: “Maybe if you shake the book he’ll / fall / out.” It’s glorious stuff – and it’s through this level of interactive reading, this, for want of a better phrase, of getting up close and personal with the book, that makes readers confident. You’re showing them the power of words – and what’s more important is that you’re showing them that they – that they, themselves can do this. They can make it happen!

Now that I think about it, Open Very Carefully really is a bit of a gift. Through clever storytelling and beautiful construction (the ‘cut-outs’ towards the end are very nicely done), and some very subtly provocative text, we have something rather special. It’s not Christmasy at all (perhaps the bobble hat on the duckling gives it a Winter flavour?) but it is one of the cleverest picture books I’ve read for a long time. Reminiscent of the great, great “Who’s afraid of the big bad book”, Open Very Carefully is very close to perfect.

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Weasels : Elys Dolan

This is my first Nosy Crow book. I’ve come across the work of Nosy Book a lot already, what with loving their blog and their books when I’ve seen them (and, er, borrowed them) from the hands of my friends and relatives children. And the thing about them, the standard brilliant thing about them, is that they’ve all been really good. High quality books lovingly produced which are all, to be blunt, really really good.

Fig 1: Front Cover

Fig 1: Front Cover

Trust me when I say it’s taken me too long to get to reviewing a Nosy Crow book and it really shouldn’t take you as long as it took me. I am beyond happy that my first  is Weasels by Elys Dolan.

This Bletchley-Bond-Hank Scorpio hybrid of a book which features the titular weasels throughout is very, very good.  And, I think, it all starts on the front cover (fig 1) as good picture books like these tend to do. See those weasels? They’re made of a slightly shinier paper than the rest of the front cover and what that means is they are tactile. You feel the weasels and see them catching the light on the front page. The title and author are done in the same shinier paper.

Remember, in these books, it’s all about the incentives. We want these books to be read and dwelled upon. We want these books to be touched and pawed and combed over, and it’s the simple things, the simple yet madly clever things such as making the weasels stand out, that do that. This is clever, smart production.

And production matters, and it matters so much because it shows value and respect and belief in the contents of the book. The content of Weasels is content worth dwelling on. And it is. And you’ve got that all just by closing your eyes and running your finger over the front cover.

Fig 2: Endpapers (Front)

Fig 2: Endpapers (Front)

So let’s open our eyes and actually have a look at the book itself. There’s a lot going on here and it’s a book that rewards rereading. It rewards dwelling on and tracing all of the narratives threading through. You know that person you know who says picture books are easy simple things? They’re not. They’re possibly one of the hardest forms of children’s literature out there.

Just have a look at the practically edible front endpapers (fig 2) . These are the bits between the front cover and the actual internal title page and copyright blurb. They can sometimes be a dead space, caught in library stamps and padding, but Dolan’s created at least sixteen (sixteen!) tiny beautiful moments here. I’ll repeat that again. Sixteen tiny, beautiful frames of a story and you’ve not even got to the ‘actual’ story yet.  (Sixteen, if not more!!!)

I really loved Dolan’s art in this. It’s so clever in the smallest of spaces. She’s got a real gift for the moment, capturing the awkward, the funny and witty all in the briefest of beats. She gives you so much and never, ever goes for the easy way out. In one scene in particular, where the lights go out, we have one weasel saying with a bit of bemusement, “Why is there a wet patch here?” and then, in the next spread, we see the white weasel (a beautiful recurrent thread throughout the book) nonchalantly whistling as it clears up a broken mug.

Fig 3: Coffee

Fig 3: Coffee

And the coffee! Oh God, the coffee! There’s elements of this book that are beautiful and brilliant and very cleverly aimed for the adults to enjoy and I think that one of those threads is coffee. I refer you in particular to Fig 3 (which, though the picture is a little rubbish, I hope you can still make out). It’s one of many, many equally glorious moments throughout this book but this genuinely had me cracking up. It’s something about the way the top weasel goes “My mocha!” and the bottom one is just caught in his appalled reaction.

This book is very lovely and very good. I hugely reccommend it, and I’m so glad I finally broke my Nosy Crow weasel duck.

You can read previous picture books in depth posts here, and there’s a really fascinating post from Dolan here on the creative process behind Weasels.

Dixie O’Day In The Fast Lane : Shirley Hughes & Clara Vulliamy

Dixie O'Day: In The Fast LaneDixie O’Day: In The Fast Lane by Shirley Hughes

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It’s books like this that make me remember why I enjoy children’s literature so. I’ve spoken before about my love for Hughes and Vulliamy; the bold, generous, reader-centred nature of their writing and artwork, and so came to Dixie with great expectations.

Which was odd, really, because I Do Not Get Cars. I mean, I really don’t. Horses, ballet, witches and wizards I get, but cars leave me spectacularly cold. Spectacularly. It remains family legend that on the only time I have ever had cause to phone my car insurance people and they asked “What was the other car?” and I said “…….red?”

Cars and me don’t mix. (“And where did the incident occur?” “….near the Chinese?”)

But I think Dixie O’Day might just work for me. It’s a chapter book for new chapter book readers; structured in a considered seven chapter format (ie: one for every night of the week). And that, just that gets a star from me because it is clever and fun and smart. Hughes and Vulliamy get how to make books good. That’s possibly the least critically astute sentence I’ve ever written but it’s true. Hughes’ text is vividly Hughesian (can we make that a verb? Let’s) and writes a story with influences ranging from Whacky Races through to the Wind In The Willows. It’s lovely. There’s not many people that know how to construct text for this age group without being either viciously didactic or patronising. Hughes never, ever does either. There’s a rather empowering feel to the text of Dixie and it’s something quite brilliant.

Vulliamy is one of my great picture book loves. I adore her artwork and her skill in making a book so open and generous in a way. Her work is something to be savoured and to be devoured all at the same time.

In Dixie, Vulliamy’s centred on a red, black and white spectrum of colours. This ranges through ear-grey, smokey broken-engine-blacks, through to smug-car-pink. Her Dixie and Percy are vividly delightful (and reminiscent to me of another great double act – Winnie the Pooh and Piglet), and there are moments in this book that made me (who doesn’t do cars!) squeal with delight. The ‘black smoke’ moment on page ten is just perfectly constructed.

I often have people ask me why I treat children’s literature in the way that I do, and as I mentioned at the start of this review, it’s books like this which remind me. I write these sorts of reviews and I read these sorts of books because they are, regardless of how they’re dressed up or presented, story. At the heart of it, they’re stories which tell us how to be brave, or to be a good friend or how sometimes the best thing in life is a custard cream at the right time. And all of that happens in this book which makes me now, very much, Team Dixie.

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