Inside, Outside, Upside, Down : Yasmeen Ismail

Inside, Outside, Upside DownInside, Outside, Upside Down by Yasmeen Ismail

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There’s a lot to like about this charming sequence of activity books from Ismail and I think a lot of centres on the value of an unfinished line. Take a look, next time you’re somewhere bookish, at a similar book, maybe one of those colouring in things that are everywhere. Take a look at how they construct an image. I’ll guess that it’s definite, solid, unbroken line. The sort of line you colour firmly within the boundaries of. Those lines are great and gorgeous and serve an incredibly relevant function in that context but Ismail’s lines are different. They have space in them; air, and don’t quite touch at the end, or run over a line, or leave a little gap before bouncing out into the whiteness of the page beyond. And that’s important in a book like this, aimed at those who have a little bit of dexterity in drawing, a little bit of ability to colour (4yrs+), because it allows mistakes. It allows ownership. It allows and it facilitates drawing to fall out of the gaps and spill across and over things. It’s a simple thing, but it’s smartly done and it recurs in the other book in the series I had a look at: Push, Pull, Empty, Full. Ismail gets line. She gets the freedom of it and what it can tell a reader, even when they don’t know that it’s talking to it.

Content wise, Inside, Outside, Upside Down is a joy. Three characters, Duck, Bear and Rabbit, explore a range of situations involving paired words and opposites over a series of double page spreads. In one example, Bear holds his bag right side up and the reader is asked to colour Bear’s bag. The pairing image, on the right hand side of the page, sees Bear’s bag upside down and the reader asked to ‘draw what’s falling out’. There are some quite complex thought processes here which is why it reaches a little bit towards the older age of the demographic. But oh, Ismail’s use of line and the slightly offbeat questions and challenges towards the reader are so very definitely worth it. What a smart and kind book this is.

I am grateful to the publisher for a review copy of this title.

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The Spectacular Sisterhood of Superwomen : Hope Nicholson

The Spectacular Sisterhood of Superwomen: Awesome Female Characters from Comic Book HistoryThe Spectacular Sisterhood of Superwomen: Awesome Female Characters from Comic Book History by Hope Nicholson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Due out in May, this is one of those books that I want to write about now and talk about now because it’s great. Simple as that; I have been looking for books and for writers that historicise their work from a female and a feminist perspective because, so often, that is a perspective that is lacking. And it’s a perspective that I’ve not come across that much in comics and so, because of all of that, and the characters that this text covers, and the sheer welcome presence of it, that I review it and tell you to get it on order and get it on request and to find a hole in your budget for it now.

Nicholson writes with a lot of love for her subject and isn’t afraid to pull and poke at the holes within it. There are always problems in beloved things; nothing is not perfect and there’s a skill in being able to love and to address the problematics within your subject. Nicholson doesn’t shy away from addressing these and I was struck most powerfully by this with her discussion of Witchblade. Witchblade is a comic I’ve always struggled with visually and Nicholson both reassured me with this perspective whilst helping me to understand the aesthetic more. And I like this; I like people that make me think twice about something.

So yes, this is an early review, but it’s a review that I’ve sat on for about two weeks now and that I don’t want to sit on any more. This is an important and relevant book that talks about heroines ranging from Squirrel Girl through to Xavin through to The Wing. Nicholson ranges widely and freely around her topic and I like that a lot. I like this book, can you tell? There’s a place for it in the world, and I’d like it to inhabit it quite solidly. As Nicholson herself writes, strong female protagonists “belong in comics [and] they’ve been there all along.”

My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

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Transformers Robots In Disguise : Where Crown City Comes to Life

Transformers: Robots in Disguise: Where Crown City Comes to LifeTransformers: Robots in Disguise: Where Crown City Comes to Life by Caroline Rowlands

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

There’s something rather wonderful about a book which elicits a “Whoah” from everyone you show it to. Transformers : Robots in Disguse : Where Crown City Comes To Life is a non-fiction media tie-in with one very unique aspect: augmented reality. For those of you yet to come across this, the most overt example of augmented reality within the media recently has been Pokemon Go. Through the usage of an app on their phone, people are able to look through the camera onto a scene and ‘see’ an introduced virtual object into that scene.

I’ve not seen much work with augmented or interactive realities in children’s literature, fiction or non-fiction (perhaps the best one I know of is the The Search for WondLa though that’s a few years old now), and so when I heard about this title – and its contemporaries – I got in touch with the publisher who kindly provided me with a review copy. And oh, oh, it’s really brilliant. This is the sort of book that challenges the opposition between books and technology by integrating the two; the book is used as a book, but as a space for interactive play, and for investigation, and as a game. It is the sort of book that you give the child who will play a game for ever and yet, struggles with books for one reason or another. It’s a bridge, this, but it’s immensely spectacular in its own right.

Format wise, it’s fairly traditionally presented nonfiction and it’s the AR element which makes it. It’s not the biggest of books, but it’s well produced and robust. It goes through several of the key autobots and decepticons, and certain pages have embedded AR elements on them so after downloading the free app, you’re able to hold your phone over these pages and ‘unlock’ a further element of them. This ranges from being able to walk and transform bots, through to driving around the room. Additional features of the app let you have robot fights with another party. I tested all the options but the latter and found them all excellent. Some of the finer detail / handling was a little complex, and there’s a brief learning curve to cope with so it might be useful to have a parent / savvy elder sibling round if needs be. But, I loved this. This is exciting, savvy work, and I’m thrilled to have a book out there in the world that does it so well.

I’ve added some pictures here of some of the AR features on the Sideswipe page. The first shows the page as it is, the second and third with the AR activated.

My thanks to the publisher for a review copy.

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What is Red? : Suzanne Gottlieb & Vladimir Bobri

What Is Red?What Is Red? by Suzanne Gottlieb

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Recently republished by the blessed Bodleian Library, What is Red? is a charming and rather beautiful book. It’s a simple journey through a series of colours framed around a question and answer dialogue: “What is Red? / Red is the colour of many things / – apples and berries and warm glowing fires” (A quick reminder, when I use ‘/’ in quotes, it’s to show where the line breaks are.) This continues throughout as we learn that the earth is brown, that the sky is blue and that the sun is yellow. The book concludes with the protagonist, Jonny, learning that night is black and it’s time to go to bed and dream of tomorrow’s adventures.

Originally published in 1961, this has a rather distinct charm about it. Bobri’s vibrant and beautiful illustrations would sell this book by itself. It’s a thick, chunky sort of style that occasionally borders on abstraction and it’s gorgeous. These are illustrations to wallow in; colour spills from edge to edge on the page, a tall sunflower grins down, and beyond the window, a fat, rich sun rises with thick yellow triangular rays. I did feel some of the accompanying texts were a little cumbersome and wordy, but I suspect much of that is grounded in my love for the illustrations; I’ll always inch towards a slender, finely worked narrative where the illustrations are this strong and impactful.

I am grateful to the Bodleian for the chance to review this title.

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The Farmer and the Fairy and other stories : Elizabeth Clark

The Farmer and the Fairy: And Other StoriesThe Farmer and the Fairy: And Other Stories by Elizabeth Clark

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

‘The Farmer and The Fairy and other stories’ is a beautifully produced volume of Elizabeth Clark’s folkloric stories. Drawn from a variety of cultures, these stories range from ‘Yogodagu and the Bees of Yamato’ through to ‘The Tale of King Solomon and the Hoopoe’. Illustrated throughout by my beloved Nina K. Brisley (who worked on the original Chalet School hardbacks), the volume contains a series of small, detailed black and white illustrations and the occasional full page colour plate. It also has a ribbon of which I approve greatly. There is very little better in books than a good ribbon.

Clark is new to me, but her work reminded very much of the Perraults and of Madame D’Aulnoy. She retells stories without losing their original roots, situating them within their cultural context whilst allowing the story to speak for itself. Certain of these cultural aspects, particularly as embodied in Brisley’s illustrations, have dated a little but again, these are discussions and learning processes for the reader to engage with and learn from.

I liked this slim volume a lot, though I suspect it might inch in appeal towards the collector as opposed to the more general audience. One aspect I undoubtedly loved were the comprehension questions at the back of the novel; I’m not sure as to whether they’re original or added in for this volume, but they’re all twisted towards asking the reader to retell the story and make it their own. This focus on the communicative aspect of story, of the transference of literature, is something that has a very great weight within children’s literature. and I will always love it.

I am grateful to Pikku Publishing for the review copy.

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The Liszts : Kylo Maclear, Julia Sarda

The LisztsThe Liszts by Kyo Maclear

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Beautifully complex and dark, The Liszts is a picture book that stands at the edge of a thousand different classifications. It’s poetry, it’s art, it’s story, and throughout all of that, it’s a quiet instruction to value the arrival of the unexpected and the different within your life. The Liszt family make lists: “lists most usual / and lists most unusual”. These may range from “lists of dreaded chores / and small winged insects” through to “lists that went on for 31 pges / lists to quiet the swirl of his midnight mind”. One day a “visitor” arrives and makes friends with Edward, the middle child. The two of them find a friendship in each other centred around questions delivered in vibrant, thick capitals: “Does anyone own the moon or the sky? / Where do my thoughts come from?”. The book ends with an echo of the opening, “The Liszts kept making lists. Scritch, scractch, / They made lists most usual. And lists most unusual” but this time, the visitor is there in the scene, reading a list of his own.

It’s not a particularly clean and simple book this which is one of its great strengths. The Visitor himself shifts from the perspective of something quite unworldly and odd to something almost benign and it’s hard to think through just what or who he’s meant to be. But perhaps, really, this is one of those books that thrives on that indeterminacy, of asking children to ascribe feelings and motivation to the incomprehensible edge of life and to try and understand those things with rough edges and less than straightforward intent. The Liszts does, I suspect, lean more to the older edge of the picture book market, but again that’s no bad thing. It’s a book that is beautifully produced but also one which thrives on an almost Gothic edge of otherness, something you might see in Neil Gaiman’s work or Chris Riddell. That edge of the world where things aren’t straightforward, but they are.

Artistically, this book is a joy. Sarda illustrates this book with a gleefully weird, almost 1920s edge where the ladies wear turbans and the gentlemen have great and splendid beards. Butterflies are pinned onto the wall, whilst characters sunbathe next to an empty swimming pool, scattered with leaves and detritus. It is a dark, odd, wonderful book this with images that fill the page and defy expectation or predictability. My only slight tinge of doubt is with the font; it’s one of those wobbly hand-written, scratchy jobs that is a little bit difficult to read at times. Aesthetically it’s perfect, yet it would push The Liszts again to that upper edge of the picture book market. But that upper edge is a wonderful, dark, perfect space for this book to inhabit. It doesn’t tie everything off neatly, nor does it place itself squarely into a frame of expectation. It’s not easy to classify, nor is it easy to predict. It is weird, delightfully so, exuberantly so, and it is beautiful.

My thanks to Andersen for the review copy.

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Mistletoe and Murder : Robin Stevens

Mistletoe and Murder (Wells and Wong, #5)Mistletoe and Murder by Robin Stevens

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Long term readers of my reviews will know that I adore what Robin Stevens writes. The Wells and Wong series are that delightful thing: a series which continues to get better with every book published. And that’s not easy; series are hard works. As are colons. And semi-colons. I am incoherent. These books make me scatty, because I love them and I can’t write coherently about love, I don’t think, not when it’s like this. Not when it’s so perfectly formed and delivered and utterly good.

To be precise: the fifth book in the series sees Daisy and Hazel visit Cambridge over Christmas. Shenanigans occur and, naturally, the girls become involved. But this time they’re not alone; a rival detective agency is on the scene and challenging Wells and Wong’s competence. Will they solve the case? Will their rivals take the glory? Will there be buns? (Of COURSE there will be buns).

The more I read of this series, the more I realise that we are privileged readers today. We get to witness series like this where the titles get better each and every time. And to say that involves a caveat that these were not poor books to begin with. There is not one of this series that I have not been prostrate with love for, that I have not rated five stars. But better is always possible, and Stevens is doing it. She’s doing it so well and I am jealous of her skill and I love it and I adore it. Mistletoe and Murder has a complexity to it that both speaks back to the books which have been, but also looks forward to the books which are yet to come. Relationships, same-sex, mixed-sex; racism, conscious, unconscious; gender-bias, sexism; give these books to people who question the relevance of children’s literature in contemporary society. Give them two copies because once they’ve read it, they will want to share it with the next person they’ve come across and realise that they can’t let their copy go.

There’s not much else to say here other than this series is wonderful and Mistletoe and Murder sparks with a delicious and beautiful complexity and I love it, I love what these books are, I love that they exist, that they are.

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