Why We Took The Car : Wolfgang Herrndorf

Why We Took the CarWhy We Took the Car by Wolfgang Herrndorf

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

After spending time as a writer in residence for a road, I’ve been increasingly interested in the role of ‘roads’ in children’s and young adult literature. Young adult literature, in fact, has a perfect sort of marriage with the metaphor of the road, where the open road promises freedom, independence and self-determination, and it’s a sense of liberty which is always in sharp contrast to that which exists at home. Furiously well known in its original German, Why We Took The Car is a translated novel that sometime burns with brilliance and sometimes widely misses the mark. It’s a book of dualities where sadness battles with raw and fierce happiness, and nothing sometimes battles with everything. I think it is occasionally rather perfect. Sometimes it is not. But then again, that’s the sort of delicious thing about roadtrip novels; there are moments, as with every journey, that the getting there matters as much as the destination itself. The journey might be quieter, duller, but it’s still so very important.

So here are our travellers: Mike, our narrator, who is a boy who doesn’t fit in, and a new boy at his school called Tschick. Tschick doesn’t fit in either, being an emigre from Russia, and also possessed of problems of his own. A slow twist of circumstances and parental absences lead Tschick to give Mike a dare. It’s time to go on a road trip. Tschick has a stolen Lada, Mike has some money, and the open road’s calling them…

Messy, wild, eccentric, this is a book that burns on the edge of the world. I liked it a lot. It’s scrappy at points, and very definitely not perfect, but then again there’s a point to be made that a teenage narrator who’s just had the trip of his life wouldn’t ever be especially coherent. Yet that’s not to say that there isn’t potency here; there’s an encounter with a family that is one of the best and most brilliantly unexpected things I’ve read with a long while, and the final movement of the book itself is kind of awe-inspiring. I think that’s the best way I can describe Why We Took The Car; sometimes it is perfect, and sometimes it is not. Such is life. And sometimes, you don’t know that, until you go out and live it.

My thanks to the publisher for a review copy.

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An A to Z of Monsters and Magical Beings : Rob Hodgson and Aidan Onn

An A to Z of Monsters and Magical Beings by Rob Hodgson

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I like this. A joint production by Rob Hodgson, and Aidan Onn, it was Hodgson’s artwork that originally caught my eye, with its exuberant and definite renderings of creatures ranging from the Sphinx through to the Werewolf and the Kraken. Hodgson delivers such rich and deliciously dark work, that manages to juxtapose a childish aesthetic with some gorgeous little touches. Let me explain a little more about that phrase of ‘childish aesthetic’ as I think it’s one that’s worthwhile to explore here. The visual literacies of children fascinate me because they are marked with a sort of infinite potential. A line on a page could be a pony, a house, or a comment on post-modernism. And yes, some of that has to do with the development of motor skills, but it also has to do with the fact that children can work in this sort of creative world of infinite potential. It’s the same with writing, and any other creative practice; we learn to work within frames. And that’s a good thing, because when we subsequently break them and remake them, we are better than what we were before. Learn the rules. Break the rules. But don’t forget to embrace that period of before, where a horse can have three heads or an antelope can sit down for tea. And that’s what I mean with Hodgson’s work, he kind of goes ‘here’s a blue minotaur’ or ‘here’s a pink Kraken’, and you believe it because it is delivered with such emphatic affirmation. It’s great.

One thing to note is that this a book that deserves a better cover than the one it has. The world of children’s picture books is a busy one, and this cover isn’t ideal. It’s a beautiful piece of artwork that reoccurs in the book itself as the illustration to the ‘Troll’ page, but when people describe it as dull and dark to me then that’s feedback I need to note and recognise. Admittedly you’ll not see many picture books which go for the dark blue palette of this cover, and there’s an argument for it standing out for that reason, but equally there’s a question to be asked about the cover when it comes to reprints. A similar question could be asked about the unexploited space of the endpapers at that point.

So, to sum, there are parts of this book that are under-exploited, but there are points that fiercely and satisfyingly hit the spots. I can imagine this going down well with a primary audience (expect lots of shrieks), and also as part of some dark and deliciously wintry creative writing and imaginative artwork sessions. I can also imagine it pairing very well with something like Bernard by Rob Jones.

My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

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My Miniature Library

My Miniature Library: 30 Tiny Books to Make, Read and TreasureMy Miniature Library: 30 Tiny Books to Make, Read and Treasure by Daniela Jaglenka Terrazzini

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

There’s been a bit of a delay in my reviewing of this because, to be frank, I’ve been too busy screaming with joy over it. Every. Single. Time. I’m not one for craft, really, as I have the adeptness of a lemon when it comes to such things, but My Miniature Library is adorable. And accessible! And a conceit so delightful that it almost beggars belief!

Presented in a robust box, the contents of My Miniature Library make up thirty small books – both classic and less well known, alongside several blanks to create your own book. These books can be subsequently displayed on a small bookshelf, which can be then situated against the backdrop of the box which, on the interior, is patterned with a wall scene and carefully laid floor (seriously, if you’re not squeaking with joy at this point then we need to talk). The tiny books themselves are madly delightful. I’m not sure why such extremes of scale are, but these are beautiful. The instructions are clear; super little people might need help with the more fiddly aspects, but this teaches bookbinding! sequential literacies! how to make your own book! how to become madly possessive over beautiful things!

God , I love this. It’s adorable. Buy it for the young people in your life and then borrow it.

(And by borrow, I mean buy them another and keep one for yourself).

My thanks to the publisher for a review copy.

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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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