Wild Animals of the North : Dieter Braun

Wild Animals of the NorthWild Animals of the North by Dieter Braun

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The latest step on my Carnegie / Kate Greenaway catch up is Wild Animals of the North by Dieter Braun. Genuinely a little bit breathtaking, this is something rather special.The conceit is simple and easy to grasp: Braun lists a selection of the wild animals to be found across a series of regions in The North. This can cover anything from killer whales in the Arctic through to pandas in Asia. And, as I said, it is something.

It’s hard to quite do justice to Braun’s big, bare, stylish artwork so instead I’ll direct you to a gallery of images. This is remarkable work, genuinely. One of the big points about this book is its size. It’s maybe a little difficult to wield for tinier hands, but that gamble pays off as it allows the artwork to breathe. There’s something rather special about just going big and bare with your work and it’s a gamble that pays off. Some of the images are genuinely breathtaking. All of them would be perfect as pictures on the wall.

Each image of an animal is labelled both with its English and Latin names. Some of them come with extra paragraphs of information, a little eccentrically formed, but still rather charming. What gives this book its strength is that sense of individuality about it. The weight of the paper. The texture of that front cover. The nuanced picking of detail in those paragraphs. I learnt things! (Learning things from a book – who’d imagine such a thing?!)

I loved this. It’s inspiring, distinct and fiercely unique work.

And I want pretty much all of it on my wall.

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Picture books, art, and the appreciation of things

I have a passion project. Thanks to Facebook, and my inability to hold onto a USB stick for more than thirty second without losing it, I have started to gather an album of picture book images. The curation method for these is simple, eccentric. I have to like it. I have to be able to talk about it.

(How curious it is that books are one thing when read privately, selfishly, but quite another when we talk about them.)

I did a talk the other day to some local sixth formers about life as a researcher, doing this. Books. Literacy. Trying to understand one of the most global, primal experiences.  Reading. Communication. Everything builds from books, I said, everything.

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More Katie Morag Island Stories : Mairi Hedderwick

I described research:

Asking why. Asking, always, asking why things are the way they are and what can we do to affect, address, challenge, question that.

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Cloudland by John Burningham

And I showed them Art.
Capital A, capital ART.

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Madeline in London : Ludwig Bemmelmans

Picture books are something which we treat, sometimes, too lightly.

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Five Senses : Herve Tullet

We’re driven by our sense of adulthood. Age based imperialism. A sense that we know better, that we shouldn’t be reading these things.

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A Brush with the Past: 1900 – 1950 The Years that changed our lives : Shirley Hughes

So sometimes, I asked them to just look at things.

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Refuge – Anne Booth & Sam Usher

Because looking – seeing – is where it all begins.

All of it.

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A Taste of Chlorine – Bastine Vivés

Us.

Horrible Bear! : Ame Dyckman & Zachariah OHora


Horrible Bear!Horrible Bear!
by Ame Dyckman

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There’s a lot to love about this vibrant and carefully pitched picture book. Horrible Bear! is the story of a girl who is out flying her kite one day. The string snaps and the kite falls into the cave of a very big and very sleepy bear. He’s asleep and, awfully, manages to roll over on top of her kite and crunch it. The little girl loses her temper and yells: “HORRIBLE BEAR!” She stomps home in that delightful full-body stomp of anger that small people do, and the bear is left to come to terms with what’s just happened. Naturally, he’s a bit upset as well and decides he’s going to be a HORRIBLE BEAR! Just as he’s leaving the cave and coming down the mountain to roar at the girl, the girl manages to break her beloved toy. Upon realising how horrible she’s been, she apologises to the bear who promptly helps her put her toy back together. Adorable, no? It’s a very charming and lovable story full with some pertinent and gently told messages.

When it comes to picture books, everything matters. Everything. There were two words that glared a little for me from the text because they didn’t feel quite as universal as I’d have liked. I know, I know, I can hear you commenting on how picky that is and it is a picky comment. But it’s a comment that comes from the nature of picture books and my love for them and my want for them to reach out to a whole world of readers and to do that with a whole fistful of meaning and weight in each and every word. There’s nowhere to hide in a picture book and it’s right to acknowledge the slight down notes in an otherwise wonderful book because everyone gets better, always, and Dyckman and OHara are rather wonderful already. The dynamic art of HORRIBLE BEAR! is testament to that, as is that subtly written note of regret on the part of the girl. It’s easy to judge in books like this, to get all high-handed and moralistic, but Dyckman reins it back. Her language is precise, kind and subtle. It’s a great line to walk and one that speaks of a great understanding of children and of learning.

Where HORRIBLE BEAR! absolutely shines is in its use of detail. This isn’t a story that forgets what’s happened to concentrate on the next page. It begins on the title page, where underneath the dedications from author and illustrator, a small girl with vibrant red hair sees the string on her kite snap. And then we’re in, pounding through a story where the bear sleeps with a little tiny teddy bear of his own, and when the girl gets back into her bedroom, we can see the bear coming out of his cave up the mountain through the window in her room. It’s so utterly lovely and smart that I can get picky with this book. I can get picky because it’s so vividly on point at certain moments that I want all of it to be up there, reaching the great heights of storytelling that it has the potential to do. This is vivid, exuberant, eccentric, and kind work. HORRIBLE BEAR! is rather wonderful. Just don’t forget that exclamation mark!

My thanks to Andersen for a review copy.

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The Journey : Francesca Sanna

The JourneyThe Journey by Francesca Sanna

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Journey is something rather special and painfully beautiful; it’s a picture book which retells the journey of a nameless family of refugees. Told in a mixture of calm double page spreads, and singular pages, the family have to leave their home after the war begins. They set off on a journey to “another country. A country far away with high mountains”; and it is a journey that has to go on without a member of the family. (I shall not spoil what happens to this member, suffice to say that it delivers one of the most poetic, restrained and pained double page spreads I have seen for a long while). The book ends on an unfixed note; the family are still traveling and the narrator sees some birds up above: “I hope, one day, like these birds, we will find a new home. / A home where we can be safe and begin our story again.” In an echo of these words, the final endpaper sees a birds eye view of a red train cutting through the landscape of an unknown country populated by trees and with mountains in the distance.

This book is endorsed by Amnesty International and it’s not hard to see why. The Journey treats its topic with a sensitive restraint and, through refusing to name either the countries involved or the people, invests the narrative with a pained every man quality. Sanna’s work here is vivid, quiet and subtle. It’s work that I suspect is for the slightly older edge of picture book readers and that’s simply due to the layering at work here. There’s so much going on in these wonderful, poetic, nuanced images. It’s Miyazaki meets The Last Unicorn meets an Aubusson tapestry meets a nightmare. Hard to describe, yet unforgettable.

There’s a dark edge to the aesthetic: scenes of familial bliss are edged by the dark edge of something threatening, whilst, in one of the most heart-rending scenes, the children sleep in their mother’s arms whilst she silently weeps into the night. As the text says, the children are unaware of this: “But mother is with us / and she is never scared. / We close our eyes and / finally fall asleep.” It is rare and brilliant work, this, and The Journey is something wonderful to end the year with this book. It is rather special and I hope a future classic.

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The Riddlemaster : Kevin Crossley-Holland & Stéphane Jorisch

The RiddlemasterThe Riddlemaster by Kevin Crossley-Holland

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I was intrigued to receive this review copy from the publisher; Kevin Crossley-Holland is an author I’ve had a strange relationship with. I admire his writing, greatly, yet often feel quite distanced from it when reading. When spoken though, or performed, I would wed it in a heartbeat. Language is strange like that, it shifts depending on the space it is. This is how I write here, tentatively, reaching my way into this review, but speaking – ? No. Difference. Form, space – content. Language shifts; writing is not speaking, speaking is not writing, but then sometimes, writing is all things and all things are writing. A world of contradiction caught in a few quick dashes on the paper, and held as tight as a kite string in a wicked Autumn storm.

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“I’ve got a riddle,” spat Wildcat.

The Riddlemaster holds the key to a marvellous island, full of treasure. In order to get to the island, Anouk, Ben and Cara must solve seven riddles. If they don’t solve them, they face the grim fate of being eaten by the animals on the boat; “Beast, and Wildcat, and Wolf, the three Bears, and Dragon / surrounded the three children. They licked their lips.” The children manage to solve the riddles and eventually arrive on an island full of stories: “So now you’re ready to meet the islanders and they’re all / waiting to share their stories with you. Anansi and Anne of Green Gables, Ali Baba and Arthur ….” The final scene sees the children racing excitedly onto a island full of books, and the land scored with letters from the alphabet.

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“Again Wolf, and Wildcat, and the three Bears, and Beast, and Dragon pressed round the three children. They licked their lips and bared their teeth.”

Though I found a few of the moments between the pages jarring (a book like this lives on rhythm and sometimes that rhythm skipped) and would have happily pared down several paragraphs, there is much to enjoy in The Riddlemaster. It’s a paean to stories and libraries and I see some substantial opportunities for related play and activities with it. I also applaud the way it flirts quite happily with disaster; the children are almost eaten several times when they almost can’t quite figure out the riddle in time. Crossley-Holland’s skill in strong, powerful language remains deeply pronounced and rather lovely: “Cara blew out her cheeks like a teapot” and “The boat’s mast was a soaring word-tree. It had thousands and thousands of leaves and each fluttering leaf had one word painted on it.”

Where this book absolutely sings is in Stéphane Jorisch’s illustrations. Jorisch gives us a tapestry of almost medieval characters; those twisting, fanciful half-dreamt, half-believed outlines of animals and characters that twist into each other and curve around the page. His children are perfect; three distinct, diverse characters, and they’re each rendered with such movement that they’re a delight. These thin washes of colour, dark and light, thin and fat, balance deliciously against the white background of the page, and it’s a delight. I want a wordless picturebook from Jorisch because there’s so much in his work; the question of a line, the expression of doubt in his finger. It’s the artwork that pulls this book together for me; great dreamy, fantastical washes, and movement filled lines. I need to find out more about Jorisch.

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Nara and the Island : Dan Ungureanu

Nara and the IslandNara and the Island by Dan Ungureanu

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Think of a bright blue sky. Think of a blue that’s so dense you could almost walk on it. Think of a sky that’s so full of this thick, dense blue that there’s no clouds, nothing else but this blue. Think of a sky that’s so blue that it almost scalds your eyes; an August blue, a seaside blue, a picnic in the park blue.

Now think of a different sort of blue. Think of this blue in a sky that’s whipped with wind and mist. Maybe this is a winter blue, thin and tense, as though it knows it shouldn’t be there at all. Maybe you can’t even think of this blue sky for long without it reverting to grey and black clouds, thick with rain and snow. Think of this blue, this mist-soaked blue, this almost gone blue.

That’s saturation. Colours of the same spectrum and yet, so different in density that they’re saying totally different things. The red of a Harry Potter spine, the red of a blush. The thickness of colour. The language of colour, really, is what I’m inching towards. The semiotics of shade.

FILE0118.JPGColour says a lot. More, sometimes, than anything else on the page. It can be used as a focal point, a hey, look-here vibrant tint of blue against a white expanse, or it can obliterate the detail that shouldn’t be seen. Make you blind, make you see. Make you read a story much more than that which the words hint at. And that’s the thing about picture books, that’s what they should do. They’re a dance between text and image, a dance that’s performed in the arena of the page and book, a pas de deux of story.

And sometimes that dance is done well, sometimes it’s an arabesque of such perfection that you could just sit and watch it a thousand times. Sometimes it’s not, and the fouette that you want from the book, the fouette that you know it can give, is nothing but an awkward limp across a few tense and uncomfortable pages.

Nara and the Island by Dan Ungureanu is an arabesque. It’s an arabesque precisely because of his approach to colour and the lyrical way in which its used. This fableistic, quiet tale is set on one island with Nara and her father, and one day they set out to “the other island”. Dad’s rationale for this is clear: their boat is now fixed, and fixed boats call for adventure. They are going to find “the big fish” and whilst he rows around the other island, Nara is allowed to explore the shore. In doing so, she comes across the island’s greatest secret, namely Aran – a friend of her own age. The final scene sees the two of them hand in hand sharing Aran’s favourite place in the island.FILE0119.JPG

I talk about colour with this book because it’s what struck me the most about it; big pale washes, almost old-fashioned in tone, but rather deeply evocative and noteably handled. This is dream-colour; hazy-edged frames, white space, shadows and moments that echo back to that great wilderness explored in Where the Wild Things Are. And I loved it.

It’s an unfinished story, open-ended, vividly romantic, and again it made me think of fables and of parables, because we don’t know what happens. We have story that can be completed in a thousand ways or, not completed at all, and it’s only the little understated note in the endpapers that gives a hint of what might happen. Give me clever endpapers that use their space, that pull their weight, and I am happy, I truly am.

A book of rhythms, of echoes; of names that pattern each other, Aran and Nara, and the urge to find something that is your own. The commonalities of difference. Nara’s island is “a little small and quiet, where it’s hard to find a hideaway” whilst Aran’s is “noisy and wild, he’s always trying to find a bit that’s just his.” There’s something deliciously empathetic underpinning this book, a sense of togetheness despite difference, and again, I come back to that use of colour, that underpinning thread throughout Nara and The Island. Because that’s the other thing about saturation and tone and colour. It brings things together. It’s a story note that sounds even when we don’t want to hear it, even when we don’t know it’s there.

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All aboard the Bobo Road : Stephen Davies & Christopher Corr

All Aboard for the Bobo RoadAll Aboard for the Bobo Road by Stephen Davies

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It’s been too long since I reviewed a picture book, and so I am indebted to Andersen Press for this review copy of ‘All aboard for the Bobo Road’. Written from the author’s own experience of life in Burkina Faso, this is a vibrant and rather appealing picture book that tells the story of the bus journey along the road to Bobo. Driven by Big Ali, with his children Fatima and Galo on the roof, the bus picks up a host of passengers on its way and passes through real places in Burkina Faso: Lake Tengrela, the ‘hippo lake’; Karfiguela Falls, the Domes of Fabedougou and several other sites, illustrated in lovingly rich and warm detail by Christopher Corr. This is a book of colour; of thickly saturated yellows and golds and oranges; searing greens and vibrant blues. I particularly loved Corr’s horizons; great double page spreads of rich blue-green; shadowy palm outlines; tumultous green-edged rainforests with the ever present sun beaming out behind the trees. Pages need ending and finishing and Corr does this so well.

FILE0106.JPGThere’s something rather deliciously welcome about All Aboard For The Bobo Road. I intensely welcome and actively embrace books that detail the lives of other cultures; far too often, picture books tread a similar path and whilst many of them deliver brilliant and nuanced things in that treading, it is a path that should never be treated as the sole and definitive route. A particular joy about All Aboard For The Bobo Road is its linkage to real world sites, turning this book into something that straddles the borders of fiction and non-fiction. There’s a wide world here in this book and it’s something that could inspire a lot of craft and activity around it; bus journeys of your own, counting games on the train with people and luggage, making a map of your local area, and so on.

FILE0101.JPGHidden away in Davies’ exuberant and rythmically pleasing narrative of the journey is a counting tale; we are asked to count the different items placed on the bus ranging from watermelons to mopeds (and yes, the amount of the items specified in the illustrations do tally with the text; some slightly picky reviewers, naming no names, do check this sort of thing), and I do love a book with a healthy aural refrain. A picture book lives in two spaces; the visual and the aural, and this has a lovely repeating motif of “Beep, Beep! They’re off again!” All Aboard The Bobo Road is such a bright, delicious thing. I rather like it.

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