Stardust : Jeanne Willis & Briony May Smith

StardustStardust by Jeanne Willis

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Let’s talk about confidence.

Confidence is hard for big people, let alone little people, to maintain, let alone figure out if they even have it in the first place. The world is an intimidating space and circumstance conspires to place people in intimidating positions. Whether that’s your first day at school, a birthday party where you don’t know anybody, or simply walking past some bigger and scarier children at the park, life as a child is hard. And it’s easy to want to make this easier, it’s easy to want to wrap up a child and say – look, stop, this is not your life. Not yet. You don’t have to feel like this, because I am not going to let that happen. I won’t let you feel that way, not yet, not ever.

Let’s talk about realism.

It’s going to happen. At some point, your child or the children you look after or see in the bus, will feel intimidated by life and there’s nothing you can do to stop that. Life is life is life. One of the biggest things that children’s book do is help in such circumstances. And when these books are shared in loving situations, savoured slowly and closely, that’s when you help your child deal with those moments that you’d maybe rather they didn’t have to deal with. You give them models of behaviour, of potential reactions to model, and to maybe think about when they’re in the nursery and having to deal with the world by themselves.

Let’s talk about Stardust. I don’t need to tell you about the quality of Nosy Crow books at this point; just remember that they can handle books well. And that’s so important because a beautiful book tells you that what is inside is important. A child, especially those who are developing their literacies, might not be able to fully verbalise why, but they’ll get that this is an important thing.

Stardust is the story of a young girl who feels overshadowed by her sister. Her sister’s the best at everything, and the younger sister never quite manages to be number one. But one night, her grandfather tells her a story about how the whole world is made of stardust, and how she’s always been a star in his eyes. The lesson obviously sticks, because the final spread sees the now grown up girl on her way to the moon as an astronaut. This final image, my friends, is a kicker.

Briony May Smith’s artwork is joyful. It’s very calm and quiet; round, thick lines, with the constant evocation of something other in that dark sky, blues and blacks and dotted with pinprick sharp stars. She’s got something of a serene quality to the spreads too, a sort of timelessness that’s not going to allow this book to date. I really loved one spread in particular which depicts big sisters and little sisters across the world, using a variety of skin tones, cultures and costumes, yet all of them connected by the quiet consistency of line and shade. It’s subtle and yet delightful. My only sadness with this book is that it needs endpapers; there’s space for something exuberant here, particularly after that end note of the book, and without them, there’s an unfinished note in the music of the book.

So let’s talk about confidence again. What Stardust does is it models a situation of empowerment for the reader; the grandfather who believes in her, and the little girl who grows up, becomes an astronaut and flies to the moon. It is powerful stuff, and it’s perfect for anyone who feels a little wobbly with life. Adult, child, dog, cat, whatever, whoever. This is generous, powerful work and it’s hard to not be moved by it.

My thanks to the publisher for a review copy.

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Moon : Britta Teckentrup

Moon: A Peek-Through Picture BookMoon: A Peek-Through Picture Book by Britta Teckentrup

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Have you ever wondered why the moon shines in the night-time sky?

There’s something to be said about the idea of grace in picture books. It’s an airy idea to grasp, particularly when rendered in the flatness of paper and print, but it’s something that, in the best picture boos, is most definitely present. Moon is very much that; it’s a delight. Airy, magical, and graceful , it moves around the world, tracing a series of night time scenes set under a silvery waxing, waning and full moon.

And it is graceful, because it’s such a restrained book. The palette is one of shadows, of muted and restricted colours, greens and blues and blacks, a landscape lit up under the light of the moon, and then a sudden flare of colour. There’s a scene that I love, amongst many, where the moon looks down at penguins, and there’s so much life on the page, that even though the palette is carefully, beautifully, modulated, the spread sings. Do you see what I mean about that idea of grace? The balance here between the pattern of the penguins, that downward shift of the land, and the remote, precise, glory of that slender moon. It’s an eloquent spread precisely because of that balance; so genuine, so gently done.

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One of the other notable elements of this book is the use of cut outs. The moon itself  is a cut out space in the page which varies as you read through the book, ultimately moving through a full lunar cycle. It’s subtle work, and manages to move the book into something where you don’t just turn the pages, you go back and forth, loooking at the moon that was and the moon that shall be. I get fulsome about books like this (I know, surprise!) but that’s because they do what they do so well and picture books build readers, and this book burns to be read under the light of a full moon at bedtime.

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This edition is due out on September 7th, and I’m telling you about it now because I think it’s one to get on pre-order, and into your budgetary / lesson / teaching plans. I also think it would be an utter delight for anyone going on a camping holiday, or anybody who’s a little bit afraid of the dark. Where Moon shines (badumtish) is in how it creates this sense of connection; the moon itself may appear slightly differently to everyone but it is the same moon. We’re all on the same planet and oh, isn’t it beautiful.

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My thanks to Little Tiger for the review copy. Yes, I screamed a little over-excitedly when I got it.

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I Dare You : Reece Wykes

I Dare YouI Dare You by Reece Wykes

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It’s been a while since I’ve reviewed a picture book and honestly? I get a little twitchy when I’m away from them. I get a little nervous, as though a part of me is missing and it’s a part that can only be completed by delightful endpapers and books that give you the world in a handful of words. Picture books are the buttress of our literacies and they make us who we are.

And I Dare You by Reece Wykes is rather, utterly gorgeous. It’s the tale of two bored gorillas playing a game of dares. The game starts in relatively innocuous circumstances before slowly building up as the dares became even more and more outrageous until the final dare – one which I won’t spoil for you here -is posed. It’s a beautiful and wonderfully handled moment that spirals off into somewhere delightfully suggestive in the final endpapers. (A brief note: books that give different front and back endpapers, that little bit behind the cover and before the ‘story’ itself, are perfect. These are immense spaces and Wykes uses them quite perfectly).

There’s a lot to love about this dry, dark, funny book and it comes from both the text and the imagery – as all good picture books should. Textually; there’s a dominant motif of ‘I DARE YOU…’ which begs for the exuberant chant of storytime. There’s also a useful point to be made in I Dare You about the risks of taking dares too seriously and though it’s not explicitly made (thank God), the lesson is very much there. This is one to have around to prompt conversation and to consider; and that’s something very important indeed.

Where I Dare You also shines is in the vibrancy of the art work; it’s a nicely restricted palette of muted greens and the blankness of the page that lets the colour of the two gorillas – blue and orange – sing in cntrast. The gorillas, though, my goodness. Great stylised, suggestive lines – the fluidity of their arms – as they slide subtly into greater and more outlandish dares, always subtly catching each other’s eyes and making sure that they’re noticed. Cleverness isn’t easy in picture books; quiet cleverness is even harder. These gorillas sing with skill. This book is such an unexpected, offbeat joy and the ending is perfect. It’s a lot to ask to pack so much into so little and yet I Dare You does it with spades. And Gorillas.

My thanks to the publisher for a review copy.

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Piglettes : Clémentine Beauvais

PiglettesPiglettes by Clémentine Beauvais

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’m always a little wary when I get offered a book to review that’s been written by somebody I know in real life. One of the things that I’m very deliberate on is that when I review, it comes from a place of honesty. And sometimes, I get concerned that that place might be affected by the people I know and because I am British and genetically trained for introversion, I get a bit conscious of that and so, every now and then, dither. So, I shall dither no more and simply tell you this: I’m lucky enough to know Clémentine in real life and she is as generous a scholar as she is as wonderful a writer. Piglettes is a joy and it is ferocious and particular and vivid and wonderful. It is a wonderful, wonderful book and it should be very much on your radar, my bookish friends.

Mireille, Astrid and Hakima have won a competition that nobody really wants to win. They are officially the three ugliest girls in their school and, because this is a competition that happens entirely online, there’s nothing that the school can do about it. It is something that the girls have to deal with on their own – or, together. The three of them band together in their adversity and decide that they’re going to cycle to Paris and gatecrash a garden party ran by the French president – a party that each girl has their own particular reasons for being there. It’s a trip powered by sausages, cheese, and cycles and it is glorious. I loved this. I loved it so much. There are moments in it that had me in raptures and moments that had me in tears; Beauvais writes with such nuance that this book gives you everything. Cheese. Lessons on body image. Friendship. Love. Sausages. It is a delight.

One of the big things about this bok is also how it treats some deep psychological issues. It’s easy to see it all about the sparking wit and humour of the narrator, Mireille, but there’s such a depth to it. Her wit and her humour comes because that’s how she’s learnt to survive and, in a few painfully beautiful asides, this becomes revealed as she wills her fellow ‘piglettes’ to not cry and show how upset they are. It’s painful, it’s gorgeous, it’s beautiful. And my god, the food in this book is something else. There is a special place in my heart for young adult books that dance with joy over sausage recipes. What an utter treat this book is. I want to wrap my arms around it and never let it go.

My (immense) thanks to Pushkin for a review copy. It’s due out in July. I suggest you make a note in your diary.

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My Name is Not Refugee : Kate Milner

My name is not RefugeeMy name is not Refugee by Kate Milner

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In this increasingly complex and difficult world we live in, I’ve been looking for books that help to explain and support younger readers. They have often proven of immense value to myself and the dual appeal of texts like this to both adult and child cannot be ignored. Step towards children’s books if you’re struggling to find answers; there’s something to be said for the pure poetics and the stylistic truths that can exist in this space.

I was delighted to come across My Name Is Not Refugee, a picture book which tells the story of an unnamed mother and son who need to leave their home. As we go along their journey, the text occasionally turns towards the reader and asks a direct question of them: “Can you speak more than one language?” or “What would you take?” It’s a simple technique and yet an incredibly potent one. Books like this thrive not only on the story that they provide but also on the discussion they provoke. I was very pleased to discover an excellent teacher’s resource kit for My Name Is Not Refugee and would direct you there as a matter of haste.

Milner’s great strength comes in her restraint; the text is poised and quiet, simply rendering the events with a sort of matter of fact air. Being a refugee is scary but also “quite exciting too”, yet she doesn’t hold back from showing the moments beyond those words. Some of the most powerful spreads in the book show great scenes beyond the text; swathes of tents in the distant, or a host of people sleeping on mats on the floor. What makes these even more beautiful is how Milner uses white space; many of the images are wrapped in white space, and so become evocative, painful little moments. It’s the detail, really, of a big journey that’s almost too big to understand, and it’s gracefully done.

There’s a lot to love about this incredibly deft and sensitively told picture book. Bring this towards little people who are asking questions – and bring it towards those little people who aren’t. My Name Is Not Refugee has this great, great range of appeal and I have a lot of time for it, I really do.

My thanks to the publisher for a review copy.

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Things A Bright Girl Can Do : Sally Nicholls

Things a Bright Girl Can DoThings a Bright Girl Can Do by Sally Nicholls

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’ve been sitting on this review for a week or so, in that gloriously selfish phase of having read a Good Book but not wanting to talk about it. Sometimes I want to wallow in that sensation and just hold it tight to myself, that feeling of having read something transformative, big, honest and real. The events of the past few days have, however, reminded me of the importance of talking about this sort of thing and so here I am; earlier than I intended, because this book is not due out until September, but I think now’s the right time to tell you about it.

Sally Nicholls is a joy. She has this great gift of story; and so I was thrilled to receive a review copy of Things A Bright Girl Can Do. It’s Suffragettes, it’s history, it’s bravery, it’s love. It’s gorgeous, really, and it made me so utterly possessive of it. It follows the stories of three different girls as they work to realise their political and personal views. They fall in love, out of love, and the relationships which underpin this novel are beautiful and sensitively told. Honestly too; there’s no easy racing off into the sunset here, everything has to be earned.

I loved this book. It’s so determined and genuine, and Nicholls tells the story with such a straightforward honesty that it’s hard to not get sucked in. It’s a perspective that I haven’t read enough of and so I also welcome this. To add to that, I’m also very grateful for the rise of overtly political and politicised young adult fiction. Things A Bright Girl Can Do doesn’t sugarcoat the process of becoming politically active, but it does render it as an absolutely vital experience.

And it believes in teenagers, young people. It believes in their chance and their ability to make a difference. Get this on pre-order now, and when it comes shelve it with something like Troublemakers, and let them work their respective magics.

As I said at the start of this review, I didn’t really want to talk about Things A Bright Girl Can Do because I was selfish over it. Possessive. But here’s the thing, that’s what a good book gives you. You have that moment with it and then you realise that, as great and vital as that moment is, it’s time to share it with the world because you can’t let a book that’s as good as this go unheard.

My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

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Troublemakers : Catherine Barter

TroublemakersTroublemakers by Catherine Barter

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It’s taken me a while to figure out how to write this review. I loved Troublemakers but I didn’t know how to write about it. It’s a curious thing, sort of not quite what I expected it to be and somehow more than that. It’s a big book. It’s thick and edible and layered with a thousand different notes, and all of them hook into you and don’t let you go. I loved it. I don’t know how to write about it, so maybe I’ll try and give you something different than my normal reviews.

But let’s begin with the blurb. Alena lives with her half-brother, Danny, and his boyfriend, in the east end of London. She has never known her mother who died when she was a baby. Danny and Nick are her family. Danny, though, has taken a job with a local politician who’s aiming to be London Mayor; somebody is terrorising the local area by leaving bombs in supermarkets, and Alena’s suddenly desperate to know more about her past. Her family.

This is a coming of age story, and it’s a yell into the world, that moment when you walk to the edge of the beach, dip your toes in the sea and yell out into the blue beyond that you are here that you matter that you exist. Troublemakers is an affirmation; a defiance, but it’s also somehow more than that. It’s like Sunday Lunch with the people you love, those lunches where you know everything almost a moment before it happens because you know these people. It’s about family, forgiveness, foolishness, love. The shape of people. The mistakes of people. The love. The cup of tea, the feet up on the sofa, the recognition of what makes you you. It’s a little bit Jenny Downham, a little bit Annabel Pitcher, but it’s very much itself. It’s feelings, and fear and friendships. Coffee. Hope. Hate. Joy.

I still don’t know how to write about this book, but oh I know how to write about what it made me feel.

My thanks to Andersen for a review copy.

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