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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Shify McGify and Slippery Sam : The Spooky School by Tracey Corderoy and Steven Lenton

Shifty McGifty and Slippery Sam : The Spooky SchoolShifty McGifty and Slippery Sam : The Spooky School by Tracey Corderoy

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The thing about Nosy Crow books is that they, fairly uniformly, have a really high standard of design. It’s almost an unimportant skill, this, because when we read a book, we read a book and we don’t really grade it on how it looks. At least, we don’t do that consciously.

But here’s the thing: when we read,we don’t just read the words. We read everything about it : the colour, the feel, the weight of the paper, the typography,the design, and we don’t realise it, but we do and this sort of stuff matters. It matters because we get signals about the quality of the text inside, and how that has been treated by the publishers. Each book should feel important when it gets published. Each book should matter, because it’s done so well to get to that point. Being published is big, it’s important, and a good looking book sings of that moment.

And Shifty McGifty and Slippery Sam : The Spooky School is such a delightful song of a book. It contains three stories in which Shifty McGifty and Slippery Sam get into cake based mishaps and solve mysteries. What makes this book work is its awareness of the paragraph break.

Like this.

(I have always wanted to do that ever since I saw a wonderful book review in Private Eye which did the best paragraph break I have ever seen. Forgive me!)

Almost every page begs to be read a little bit further on and that all centres around the wonderful use of structure in this book. Each paragraph is so very well put together that it delivers a coherent, neat point before leading the reader on. It’s delightfully done and one that speaks of a deep consideration for the needs of the reader. The Spooky School is a book that cares about the reader but also wants to ease them through it. I like that. Care. From the outside to in.

Lenton’s illustrations are delivered in a vibrant limited palette of oranges and whites. It’s a nice thematic restriction for a book with a spooky content and it works well with Lenton’s skill. He doesn’t drown the pages in work but rather lets a strong element of each image stand out, and yet when the text calls for a more detailed illustration, revels in a clean busy line. Does that last note make sense? Imagine a busy pedestrian crossing at the road in the middle of a busy city, a thousand people on the street, traffic lights, noise and cars. Now imagine that the traffic lights aren’t working. Now imagine that they do. That’s the difference, right there. Lenton knows how to work his page and tease out the edges of Corderoy’s sparky, friendly prose.

My thanks to Nosy Crow for the review copy.

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There May Be A Castle : Piers Torday

There May Be a CastleThere May Be a Castle by Piers Torday

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I suspect there may be awards in this book’s future. It is a bath-go-cold sort of book; a wheeling, soaring skim through a car journey that goes very wrong and then into somewhere else. Somewhere other. And it’s in this other place that young Mouse has just woken up. His mother isn’t here. Neither are his sisters. It’s just Mouse, a sarcastic talking horse and a sheep that says baa.

And Mouse knows exactly what to do in such fantastical, quest-beginning, sort of circumstances : he is to find the castle. He is to be the hero.

It’s hard to talk about this nuanced, rich book without spoiling elements of it so forgive me if I generalise occasionally. I will try not to, but I want to tell you about how perfect There May Be A Castle is and I want to sort of tell it whilst I’m still lost in it. This is a book that I don’t want to step back from. I think Torday’s getting better – and he was wonderful beforehand. There May Be A Castle feels stronger, somehow, more potent (and again, I say this with the caveat of how wonderful Torday’s other work is). It’s a book that is almost palpable with intent – and freedom. It revels in its space. It knows its space. It is a space of fantasy and of otherness, but also of bravery. Both Mouse and his sister face quests of their own, quests that rely intensely on bravery and being able to take control of the apparently uncontrollable.

I love this book. I love the strength of the protagonists. I love how confident it feels, how potent and powerful it is, and I love it and hate it and love it for the way it made me weep at the ending. I love how it smashes fairytales firmly into the present and makes them into something wonderfully profound and awful and brilliant and gorgeous. It is layered and rich and wonderful and I love it, I love it.

There May Be A Castle is due out on October 6th. I would mark the date.

My thanks to Quercus for the review copy.

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Are we there yet? : Dan Santat

Are We There Yet?Are We There Yet? by Dan Santat

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

There’s something rather extraordinary about Santat’s latest picture  book which investigates the imaginative potential of the road trip. Road trips are boring, really, unless you’re doing something. And if you are, then you’re not in the car. You’re eating something or photographing or racing your siblings to be the first to the last toilet this side of midnight. But sooner or later, that ends, and you’re back in the car, and there’s another three hundred hours to be worked through before you get to where you’re going.

Time. It’s a hard concept for adults to grasp, let alone very young children, and Santat wisely stays away from rigid facts and figures. Instead Are we there yet? embraces the dream-edge of time, space and indeed, of the very parameters of book itself.

It’s Grandma’s birthday, and, as the road trip continues and boredom sets in, the book flips –  quite literally – and another narrative spills out on the upside-down pages. It’s a narrative of adventure; still, rich scenes torn from time and set against the plaintive backdrop of the family in the car and “I’m bored” emanating from the back seat.Minutes begin to feel like hours. Hours feel like days ( “I feel sick”), and as days become months we slide back through history and the car becomes a participant in a jousting tournament or forced to walk the plank off a pirate ship. The tumultuous culmination of this journey sees the car and its inhabitants come face to face with a T-Rex. This encounter flips the book once more and suddenly we’re in the future where a robot takes your picture and replies in QR coded speech bubbles. Which work. Perfectly. Seriously, it’s the first time I’ve ever seen QR codes do something awesome. You scan these speech bubbles with a QR code reader and a little panel pops up with a ‘translation’ of what the robot is saying. God, I love this book.

You might be gathering that Are We There Yet? is quite a special book. It is. It works damn hard, and a lot of that wouldn’t actually work without the various elements that constitute it working. An awful sentence, yep, but what I’m trying to say is that there are moments when you can throw everything at something and have none of it work. Kind of like this paragraph. Anyway. You need to be able to handle fancy elements and Santat does and can. It’s outstanding work. It made me shriek with joy, this book, and stare at it in wonder because he brings something quite contemporary, new  and quite delicious to the format. And he does it well. It would be so easy to do this badly, it really would.

One of the clever things about Santat’s work is that he brings the reader with him. Give me all the fanciness in the world, but if you forget about the reader then none of that’s worth a thing. Santat positions the reader central to the work and one of the smart ways in which he does that is his handling of text and captions. The below spread is the first ‘flip’ scene; look at the top left of the caption and then trace it round the page (note that white line which takes you with it, and lets you know that it’s okay) and look, in particular, at the point of that final box of the line. IMG_20160916_150431667.jpg

It’s these final boxes – these caption bubbles? my terminology escapes me – that tells me that Santat is good. Because whatever way you turn the book, these points on the boxes lead you towards the page turn and hold you safe throughout the rest of the book.

IMG_20160916_150512216.jpg

The next page of the book? Turn left. And oh, the delicious, time-shift of such a gesture in a book built on reading left to right. Santat, I salute you.

IMG_20160916_150501784.jpg

The next page of the book? You got it. Turn left. Keep reading. No man left behind.

This is such a wonderful, smart and brilliantly constructed book. Like I said, it’s spectacular.

My thanks to Andersen for the review copy.

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