Review: The Bear and the Piano

thebear1The Bear and the Piano is one of those picture books that just begs to be plucked from the shelves and taken home. The title entices – a bear?  a piano? – but the real draw is the powerful image of a tuxedo-wearing, ivory-tinkling bear, framed by lush velvet theatrical curtains. The eye is led to the bear, the piano and then to the intriguing background – not a stage, as you might expect, but a flower-filled meadow and the faint images of tree trunks, fading as they grow higher.  So much in one image; a story in itself.

After that, the inside pages have a lot to live up to.  They succeed brilliantly, revealing a charming tale of a bear who discovers a ‘strange thing’ in the woods and, after much practice, begins to play the piano.  Later he leaves his kith and kin to share his talent on Broadway.  Away from the woods and far from home, the bear must decide – fame or friendship? Continue reading

Review: The Many Worlds of Albie Bright

albiebrightThe Many Worlds of Albie Bright is a read-in-one-sitting book which, if I was eleven, would have been finished way past my bedtime, under the covers, torch in hand.  It’s a book to devour; Christopher Edge’s writing invites a turn of the page and has that very readable sense of ‘just one more paragraph, just to the end of the page, just finish the chapter…’.

This makes it a great read for any 8-12 year old.  What makes this a must for every school library and book corner, is not just its ‘readability’ but the subject matter which illuminates two big themes; grief and science.

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Review: A Song for Ella Grey

asongforellagreyOh, come on David, surely you’ve gone too far this time. David – or Mr Almond, I should say, with due deference to my number one favourite author of all time – even genius has its limits.  A Song for Ella Grey should fall flat on its face, should sound a bum note. How could it not?

This, believe it or not, is the drill.  Orpheus – you know, the guy from Greek mythology – pitches up on a beach, not a sun-kissed Aegean beach but a beach in Northumberland, and, if that wasn’t daft enough, Orpheus, the guy from Greek mythology, has an accent, a why-aye-man type North East accent.

And then, well, he wanders around like it’s an every day thing to have a guy from Greek mythology come round for tea and make why-aye-man small talk.  As you do.

I should have stopped reading.

I should have laughed, like when Alan Partridge pitches his latest dotty idea talent show (Monkey Tennis anyone?  Or, try this, Orpheus in Otterburn?).

But I didn’t. Continue reading

Review: The Journey

thejourneyWhen does a book cease to be a book? When does a collection of words and pictures on a page become something approaching high art, to be placed on a pedestal with the finest of paintings or the most beautiful pieces of classical music?  Where the line is drawn is a matter of taste and predilection but, one thing’s for sure, The Wonder by Francesca Sanna has crossed the boundary. This is more than a book. By any measure, it’s a work of art.

Much credit must go to the publishers, Flying Eye Books, who have produced a book of tremendous quality – it begs to be held and treasured.  The hardback cover is fringed with a thumb-width of fabric; the paper is free of tacky gloss and has a texture more like cartridge paper; the font sits serenely on the page, allowing the illustrations to come to the fore.  There’s the kind of detail that tells you The Journey has been designed by people who have love in their hearts.  I want to meet them, hug them, and say ‘thank you’. Continue reading

Review: I am Doodle Cat

iamdoodlecatI am Doodle Cat got the thumbs up in my house, appealing to both of my little people (aged 3 and 6).

The illustrations steal the show, with just simple repeated phrases throughout the book – each page recounts what Doodle Cat ‘loves’.  There’s a clever mix of detailed drawings and simpler, almost half-finished pictures. Most pages are in bold primary colours on a white background.  This works well, particularly when the odd page has much more to pick through.  The contrast is engaging; it kept my older child interested.

The best sketches express movement (Doodle Cat’s arms whirl brilliantly as he pounds the drums on the ‘I love noise’ page and the cat becomes a painted blur when he says ‘I love going fast’) or humour  (the ‘I love baths’ show Doodle in a typically cat-like pose, leg cocked in the air while his hidden face cleans his private parts; the ‘I love farts’ page is guaranteed to raise a giggle, complete with an autograph-signing gassy product).

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Review: The Shadow Keeper

Review: sahdowThe Shadow Keeper is a cracker.  Abi Elphinstone’s second book transported me back in time – way back in time – to my youth.  Not to a specific moment or place as such, but to a feeling, a sense of what it was like to be young. Remember – before the more worrisome effects of adolescence or adulthood arrived on the scene, there was a time when everything was an adventure.

A bike ride wasn’t just a bike ride; how could it be when blood-sucking martians, visible only to me and my mates, were flitting between the trees?  A kitchen table to you was a secret den to me.  A stroll on the beach was no such thing, not when you’re foraging for food, surviving alone after being washed up, shipwrecked on the sand (surviving, it must be said, within sight of Mum, not past the pier, and with a bellyful of sand-encrusted cheese rolls).

This is what’s great about The Shadow Keeper, it creates or, more accurately, re-creates that unique sense of adventure and derring-do that is only really experienced in childhood.

In the telling of the tale – Moll, part of a gypsy clan who crack codes and battle smugglers to find an amulet with the power to defeat the evil Shadowmasks – Abi Elphinstone summons up the spirit of the Famous Five and turns out a rollicking yarn, full of wonderful pantomime-esque villains, clever and well-observed description and, in Moll, a lead character full of life and vigour and the kind of flaws that make you want to hold her close.

While there’s more than an echo of Enid Blyton in the book, the Shadow Keeper drew out another vague, distant, imprecise memory.  It reminded me of a time, way back in time, when I read a very special series of books with the same sense of magic, adventure and other-worldliness.  This was the Narnia books by CS Lewis.  I can offer no higher praise.

Review: A Great Big Cuddle

agreatbigcuddleMy children love a good story. They’ve been raised on books, from before they were even born. I remember reading out loud while number one child – that’s birth order, not personal preference – was driving Mum crazy, entering the last month or so of pregnancy. We read all the time now; they are immersed in words and stories.

What’s really interesting though, as they begin to express more interest and enthusiasm for one particular book over another, is their response to poetry.  They love it; they are captivated by poems in a way that is different to the prose they read or hear.

There’s a playfulness to the language of poetry that seems to more readily connect and align with their understanding of language. From time to time, my youngest still gets words wrong and we laugh together and make up new sillier words, giggling just because of the sound they make. We speak in our own tongue, unique to us, made up of crazy sounds and intonations – we babble away together while they are in the bath. It’s poetry, of sorts.

Don’t get me wrong, we all love a straight-down-the-line story, paragraphs, chapters and all – but there is a freedom and a lack of constraint to poetry that young children seem to instinctively ‘get’.  It’s the same with older children. I’ve taught for enough years to know that there’s a point in the academic year when writing can become a slog, a treadmill of planning and paragraphs and punctuation.  In this critical state, the only thing that revives the stricken patient is a dose of poetry.  It brings life and joy back to the page. Go on, it says – break the rules, have a play. Continue reading