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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The Adventures of Beekle – The Unimaginary Friend : Dan Santat

The Adventures of Beekle: The Unimaginary FriendThe Adventures of Beekle: The Unimaginary Friend by Dan Santat

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Picture books are complex, complex spaces that speak of something quite vibrant and distinct when they’re done right. They’re slim, ineffably potent things that tell story as though it is pared from their very heart; each word laden with a value that, through their sparing usage, becomes magic. Writing a picture book is easy. Writing a good one is hard.

The Adventures of Beekle : The Unimaginary Friend is something quite defiantly different. Pages read like Monsters Inc. meets The Yellow Submarine meets Where The Wild Things Are. I keep returning to that idea of defiance when I look at this book; those images that push right the way to the page edge, those double page spreads of dark, starlit nights, followed by double spreads of bright, airy yellow, devestating in its simplicity. Colour defines this book; wild and exuberant colour that wraps its way around sea-dragons and the urban darkness of the city marked by the defiant present of a vibrant blue-green imaginary friend in the corner. It is a book that is barely held within its pages, and there’s something rather delicious about that to me. From Shirley Hughes’ divine Alfie Steps In through to Sarah Bee and Satoshi Kitamura’s The Yes, I will always love books that make themselves a space in the world that is so very resolutely their own.

The Adventures of Beekle achieves that individuality both visually and also in its story; the tale of an unnamed individual and his search for his friend. Every imaginary friend has a special child who gives them their special name. The only problem is that his hasn’t turned up yet, and so he decides to set off and find her. Referred to throughout as ‘he’ and ‘his’, it is only upon meeting Alice, his friend, that this changes. She christens him as Beekle and the two of them become “perfect together”. Idyllic scenes follow, where Alice and Beekle have fun together to the tangible bafflement of onlookers, make friends with others, before finally sailing off into the distance all together, where: “they did the unimaginable.”

There’s some longer words here, and the ideas of negatives, that will maybe take a moment or two to work out together, but I tell you that with the caveat that this book is a grower. It’s one to root in the library or the bedroom and let it grow; let the story spill out and colonise the world around it. Some of the spreads are utterly delicious things, wild and characterful juxtapositions of light and dark, but always, always just on the not scary side of weird. It’s a fine art to have achieved such here, and Beekle does it in spades. I keep looking at the illustrations and finding something new, from the Super Mario-esque clouds through to the diverse characters, through to Beekle’s crown is held together by masking tape. This fervent tribute to the imagination, and to the power of stories and creativity, is a genuine delight and madly, madly moving at points. Small but mighty things happen in the best of picture books. I suspect this is one such beast.

My thanks to Andersen for the review copy.

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The Vasa Piglet : Björn Bergenholtz

 

Vasa Piglet : Front Cover

Vasa Piglet : Front Cover

The Vasa Piglet by Björn Bergenholtz
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’m distinctly conscious that the books I review tend to fit a particular canon of authors, style and language. Whilst some of that is perfectly understandable and self-explanatory (*cough*bit of a fan of the school story *cough cough*), there’s a point where those canonical edges should be challenged and reshaped. Reading out of ones remit, as it were.

This is something I’d always encourage readers and people who work with readers to try and support. Boundaries are made when we become comfortable in our reading. It is always worthwhile to test the nature of those boundaries to realise the points where they are thin and poorly made. Enable difference, divergence. Turn left instead of right. Put away all the fiction books and just have non fiction on display. Talk about reading and choices. Let the child dictate to you what both of you read. Read together, read apart. Read differently. Publishers like Pushkin Press and Big Picture Press are catching my eye a lot for their titles which facilitate this bold and adventurous approach towards children’s literature, fictional and otherwise. Let me know of any others you recommend?

The Vasa Piglet

The Vasa Piglet : internal image

Today’s review is of a gorgeous little picture book from Stockholm. The titular Vasa Piglet is Piglet Lindbom who has been taken from his home and put on the royal warship Vasa, about to launch from Stockholm harbour. Piglet Lindbom realises quite quickly that he’s destined to be eaten and must escape. As he tries to figure out his escape, he hides down below in the shadows before climbing up the mast and hiding in the nest. All the while, the ship is taking on its supplies and preparing to set sail….

The Vasa Piglet is based on true events. The Vasa was a real boat and you can find out what happened to her here (spoilers!). The book itself has been fact checked by the Vasa Museum in Stockholm. Whilst I’m no historian, the images present what feels like a realistic portrayal of life in Stockholm at the time (and the endpapers in particular neatly bring the story into the present day).

Vasa Piglet : Looking down onto the ship

Vasa Piglet : Looking down onto the ship

The text has a distinct charm despite certain points of it being somewhat stiffly rendered in the translation that I read. I loved the moments where Piglet Lindbom climbed up the rigging “forgetting that pigs can’t climb rigs” and gets given grief from a seagull “Copy me. Fly!”. Piglet Lindbom’s world weary respone is to think: “Seagulls don’t know much about pigs.”

Visually, The Vasa Piglet is charmingly distinct and quite avant-garde at times. Certain images cover several moments at once, imbuing the page with a level of dynamism and direction as well as making the reader actively engage with the visuals present.

There’s a romantic twist to some of the spreads as well. One key example of this is the cover, where Piglet Lindbom sits at the top of the mast and stares out into the blue ink sky, dotted with stars. The visual clues of this are fairly emphatic in nature : Piglet Lindbom will survive as he’s looking forward into the future and not being chased by an angry / hungry chef. The tension of this book doesn’t exist in that moment. Rather, it exists in the machinations behind that moment. How will Piglet Lindbom escape the Vasa? What happens, to those of us who do not know of the Vasa (and I was one!), is quite the surprise…. (I’m trying to not spoiler the ending, but that last sentence is hideous – forgive me!). In essence The Vasa Piglet has its faults but as a whole delivers an unusual, somewhat eccentric and oddly charming experience.

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One thousand things : Anna Kövecses

One Thousand Things: learn your first words with Little MouseOne Thousand Things: learn your first words with Little Mouse by Anna Kovecses
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There’s a lot to love about this vibrantly produced and character filled vocabulary builder. We follow Little Mouse through a range of different spread and scenes designed to increase vocabulary in a variety of contexts: colours, seasons, body parts, vegetables, weather and many more.

Anna Kövecses artwork is rich and stimulating. There’s a retro tone to it, creams coupled with characters that look like they’ve been cut out and stuck in. There’s hints of decoupage but also those vibrant moments of imaginative expression where a triangle becomes a boat sail or a rectangle becomes a nose. I welcome also Kövecses’ usage of diverse characters and settings and would have welcomed more of these spreads. There is a truth in reflecting the world in a book like this.

Certain of the spreads jarred a little for me; there’s a shift in perspectives from straight on through to top down on some spreads that took me a moment or two to figure out, and in other spreads,the labelling text for the element doesn’t fit quite onto the element itself. I’m thinking in particular of the ‘vegetables’ and the ‘what can you do outside’ spread in particular for these two examples. These moments diverted me from the intense poetry and fluidity of these pages and whilst I’m intensely conscious of the fact that such a response is couched in my personal context, I’m conscious that books like this develop vocabulary but also visual literacies. And in a book that is as genuinely beautiful and rich as this, it’s hard for me to ignore such stutters. I’d have also welcomed some utilisation of the endpapers; exploiting areas like these help children to develop their literacies around the book and the space of the book itself.

I am picky about One Thousand Things for one very simple reason. It is something that is really rather good, vividly unique and evocative, and I can see the space where it can fly into something quite shatteringly brilliant.

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