What Does An Anteater Eat? : Ross Collins

what does an anteater eatWhat Does An Anteater Eat? by Ross Collins

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Picture books are a performative thing. Every book is, in a sense, but picture books are perhaps more performative than others. They are made to be shared and talked about and enjoyed by multitudes of readers. They are made to be read aloud, to inspire funny voices, and to have their corners chewed on by babies who are figuring out this wide, wide world that they live in. I always think that it’s a good thing when you can feel this edge of performance to a picture book, where you can sense the parts you’d emphasise or the parts where you’d tease out the tension to that almost unbearable point, and I always think that it’s a good thing when you read a picture book and can hear the reaction that it would get.

What Does An Anteater Eat? is a book that’s full of that third space, that performative edge, that raw, hysterical laughter that really only little children can do and when they do it, the world laughs with them. And I felt that when I read this book, and that’s something quite remarkable. This is a relatively slender story; an anteater wakes up from a nap, is hungry, and tries to remember what he eats. He asks several other animals who provide both useful and useless answers, before happening upon an ants nest and – well, let’s just say that anteaters don’t actually eat what you think. There’s a nice little note in this about not judging on appearances, and Collins’ art is full of a vibrant, thick sense of colour. He’s an artist doing good things, and his characters sing with this sense of lovely honesty. This is lived art, primal and potent. I also do love a cover that sets itself apart from many of those on the shelves at the moment.

I’d have welcome a little more work being done with the lettering, as I always feel that simply shifting from text into italics is a relatively easy default to choose in a picture book and one which shies away from the added quality good lettering can provide, but that’s a small note for a book as potently performative as this.

My thanks to the publisher for a review copy.

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Pony on the Twelfth Floor : Polly Faber, illus. Sarah Jennings

Pony on the Twelfth FloorPony on the Twelfth Floor by Polly Faber

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

There’s a lot to love about what Polly Faber does and I, for one, hope she continues to do it. I had, and continue to have, so much time for her work on the Mango and Bambang series ( which I review here), and Pony on the Twelfth Floor is an utter, rich delight. Faber is very quietly producing a canon of classy, rich and rather delicious children’s stories and they all have that classic edge of timelessness about them. They’re rather like a slice of cake that gives you everything you need, and a little bit more besides, and when you’re finished, it’s all good. Everything is good. Frankly, everything is lovely.

This is a pony story steeped in pony stories, and I will always respect those who both know and love their genre. There’s a Sweetbriar reference (!) alongside several deliciously knowing references, and really, that was enough to have me fall in love with this book. But it’s not just about jokes, and Faber knows that for this book is underpinned by heart. Kizzy wants a pony in that desperate, endless way you do when you are a certain type of person of a certain type of age. (And note, how I do not specify that age because I think it is an ageless sort of love.). But because she lives in a twelfth floor flat, in the middle of a very urban environment, it seems as if she won’t get one. That is until she sees one munching on flapjacks in the supermarket.

And that’s how it begins; a twist of circumstance, a love of the most fierce kind, and this book roars from that point onwards. Kizzy is true and real and lovingly drawn; she’s the child who used to comb the ‘win a pony’ competitions (not, says I, that I did or anything) and the child who practices cantering down the street. And none of this is rendered as something to laugh at, or something to be embarrassed by, because it’s right. There’s nothing wrong with love and faith and believing that one day the world might conspire to give you your hearts desire.

Another thing to note is the illustrations done by Sarah Jennings, because they’re lovely. They’re just the right side of Thelwell, and full of a delicious sense of humour in every line. Flapjack is distinct, and lovely, and it’s hard to not fall in love with him because you get it. You get it. Look, I know I’m burbling, but honestly I don’t care. I like this book. I love it. It’s so rich and so honest and so heartfelt, and it’s utterly well done. What a time, what a world.

My thanks to the publisher for a copy.

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Home Home : Lisa Allen-Agostini

Home HomeHome Home by Lisa Allen-Agostini

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There’s a point towards the end of the first chapter of Home Home where I got The Feeling. You’ll know what The Feeling is; it’s that moment when you read something, maybe a word or a sentence or a metaphor, whatever, but you know that it’s good. Your spine tingles. Something settles inside your head. The conscious recognition of skill, there, bubbling beneath the surface. The realisation that you’re in good hands.

Home Home is the story of a depressed Trinidadian teenager, Kayla, who is sent to live with her Aunt in Canada. Whilst there, Kayla must come to terms with her mental health, her new family and indeed her new home. I received it for review from the publisher and was grateful for the offer: I want to find these sorts of books and see them participating within the world, and Home Home more than holds its own. It’s worthy of attention on a thousand different levels.

My only caveat with Home Home is that it is a relatively slender piece, and as such seems to almost finish before it starts. There’s an undoubted element of frustration there that I need to acknowledge because, I suspect, were it given some more space, this could be something kind of great. At present, it feels like there’s not enough space for it to fully explore its potential but, equally, it offers a ton of potential for follow up activities and close reading exercises.

I also don’t want to deny the fact that what is in Home Home is kind of fascinating, occasionally rather beautiful, and kind of great. Home Home exists somewhere between raw, Tumblr-esque truth and a whole hearted stream of consciousness vibe. There’s power here, particular in its honest and vivid truth and the way that it sometimes tumbles together and makes itself known at the least opportune moments. It feels in fact like something that you might find tucked away on a blog somewhere by somebody who feels the need to express themselves and to feel out the edges of that expression, and in the process to find themselves. I don’t think that’s a bad legacy for a book to have.

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Little Liar : Julia Gray

Little LiarLittle Liar by Julia Gray

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Julia Gray is quietly producing some of the most complex and challenging books out there, and Little Liar is a spectacular addition to her canon. I’m fascinated, really, by books that do not do what you expect of them nor what you think they should, and this is one of those books that quietly and determinedly does what it has to do in its own way and pulls you in with every step it takes. I have time for books that do that, and I have such time for books that do it well.

Nora, the narrator, is a liar. She has told lies before, about many things, but one lie in particular starts to change everything. Like a pebble dropped in water, there are ripples and aftershocks that reach farther than Nora can imagine. Her new friendship with the rich, unpredictable and talented Bel is impacted; her world changes. And choices, inevitably, have to be made.

I devoured this. I’m not sure the ending quite delivered on what I wanted it to be, but then I’m not sure something like this can ever do what you want it to do because of the nature of the beast. I’m also not sure the title is the best one, and I have concerns about it being overshadowed by more visible titles. I say these sorts of things because the story here is so very good that I do not want that to happen. It’s precise, pained, and beautifully crafted, and every now and then Gray has the skill to throw in a minute that makes you genuinely gasp. And I did, and can I tell you how rare that is? To physically pause and gape at a book and have that moment of full body reaction?

Little Liar is a complex book full of complex characters and it’s often unattractive, dark and challenging. There’s a level of bravery in that because nobody can easily, nor coherently, be rooted for and nobody gives you those (so often impossible or ripe with cliche) moments of fictional happiness. But then, do you have to root for somebody in a book? You can root, perhaps, for the way that a book makes you feel; the way it may bring you to the edge of your senses and block out the world beyond it; the way that you can’t describe it in one sentence; or, perhaps, the way that you are genuinely part of this world and at a loss for what will happen next but knowing, knowing that you can’t stop reading?

I can root for that.

My thanks to the publisher for a review copy.

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What Lexie Did : Emma Shevah

What Lexie DidWhat Lexie Did by Emma Shevah

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I liked this. Shevah is one of those authors whom I’ve been aware of for a while but never got quite round to reading; suffice to say, she’s a joy and this is a solid and richly told story of family fit to put alongside the work of Hilary McKay, Jacqueline Wilson and Susie Day.

‘What Lexie Did’ follows a lie that spirals out of control in that way that lies can and so often do. Lexie is best friends with her cousin, Eleni, who has a heart condition, and has looked after her all of her life. Their friendship is one of delicious intimacy and all consuming-closeness, again in that way that early girl friendships so often are, but all that is tested after Lexie tells her lie. It ends up pulling the family apart, exposing tensions between her parents and Eleni’s parents, Eleni and Lexie, Lexie and everyone, and everything goes horribly wrong. She knows she has to tell the truth – but where? When? How?

Shevah’s got this lovely richness about her work, and I was very pleased to see that she’d spent some time ensuring the honesty of writing about a Greek Cypriot family. It pays off; this is a book that’s thick with identity and loveliness. Shevah also deserves plaudits for her handling of the adults; they’re realistic and sympathetically drawn. I liked this a lot. It’s a genuine, heartfelt and rich book – and any book that has a cinnamon cake recipe at the back of it is a good book by me.

My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

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Looking After William : Eve Coy

WilliamLooking After William by Eve Coy

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It’s very easy for me to become a little cocky when it comes to reading children’s books. I read a lot of them, and when you read a lot of anything, you become familiar to the tips and tricks that such books use. You become wise to how they do what they do, and to be frank? Sometimes you become a little bit blind. Sometimes it’s easy to read something not for what it is, but for what you think it is. It’s a trend that I’m increasingly aware of within myself and so I am thrilled and delighted by those books that challenge my preconceptions. That rear, perhaps, out of the paths that I have chosen for them and ask me to consider them anew and with fresh, eager eyes.

Looking After William is a perfect little book and I adored it. It’s told very simply, often pairing a clean sentence with a vibrant and rich double page spread, and it has this sort of timeless, rich taste to it. A lot of this is due to Coy’s quietly confident language, but also the rich, unfinished edge of her artwork. These illustrations sing with unfinished energy and movement; they’re part of the tapestry of this life, and rich with an almost infinite sense of potential. She’s not afraid of the more abstract edge either, pairing a lion tamer scene with an astronaut, and linking the two through some smart visual clues. There’s also a delightful hidden thread throughout the book, with the cat, and some thickly gorgeous endpapers.

I love books like this, because they speak. They speak out and loud and proud about what they are and this is a book about love. It’s the story of William and his Mummy; but, is in fact, told from the child’s point of view. It’s such a subtle and clever way to flip the story, and it’s one that will leave the parents nodding sympathetically at William’s exhaustion and children delighting in being in control. Books like this are good, you know? They work. They remind me what is good and right with the world.

Thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

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Running On Empty : SE Durrant

Running on EmptyRunning on Empty by S.E. Durrant

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Running On Empty: a story of family, relationships, and of knotty moments and problems that need solving but don’t have easy solutions, a story of life, really. It’s the second novel from SE Durrant (the first, A Little Bit Of Sky, I review here). She’s an interesting writer in that she kind of slides into the heart of things and does so in a very gentle, truthful and honest manner. She’s a writer with heart, and Running On Empty is full of it.

AJ, the twelve year old lead, is having a bit of a rough time. He’s worried about his parents, who suffer from learning difficulties, and he’s trying to come to terms with the death of his grandfather, and the bills are piling up and he’s convinced that social services are at the door ready to break up his family. Throw into the mix the transition to senior school, trainers that don’t fit – not great when you’re a star runner – and there’s a whole whirl of problems all vying to make themselves felt first.

Running On Empty is somewhat stiff at first, reading a little protectively and defensively, but after a while it starts to work its subtle magic. Durrant has this great gift of finding the truth of people and of letting them be what they are, whether that brave or scared or foolish or whatever. This feels like a grounded and honest book, not in the least of the representation of AJ’s relationship with his parents. Young carer’s aren’t represented that much in children’s literature, and Durrant handles this well; never sliding towards ‘I AM WRITING ABOUT A YOUNG CARER ASK ME HOW’, but rather tenderly and sensitively sharing this story with the world.

It’s really quite something to deliver two books in a row that are as quiet and calm and as carefully crafted as these. I really do look forward to seeing what comes next from Durrant.

I am grateful to the publishers for a review copy.

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