Tuesday, 28 September 2010

In praise of the late Richard Scarry

 When I was a kid, I remember being given a huge book one christmas morning that was filled with all sorts of crazy animal characters going about the normal everyday things that us humans get up to. There are a ton of anthropomorphised animal character books out there, but for me, no one's really come close to holding a torch to Richard Scarry. Sadly he passed away in 1994 but spent a long career both in commercial illustration and advertising before finding his niche in children's books. 

The infamous "Busy Town" books are just that (A Day at the Airport is pictured above) and are part of Scarry's trademark of mixing superbly illustrated animal characters with super-detailed scenes. Like any fantastic painting or illustration, there's always some tiny detail or new thing to discover in any of Scarry's work. 

Carrying on his father's legacy, new "Richard Scarry" books are still being published, often drawn and written by Scarry's son (also named Richard but also sometimes published under his nickname "Huck"). Taking on his father's illustration style, Huck's books are just as busy and detailed and there are also some superb collections of classic Scarry stuff still in print. 

If you spot any of these at car boot sales, or in your local library, snap them up. They're superb fun and if you remember how excellent they were when you were a kid, you can bet your own kids will love them too.

Daddy Hug

Daddy Hug

Written by Tim Warnes

Illustrated by Jane Chapman

Amazon Link: £5.39

Published by HarperCollins Children's Books

Awww, there's always room for a cute and cuddly book like this in anyone's collection. It's a great little collection of animal pictures and of course there's plenty of opportunities to point out just how great daddies are (well we are, aren't we fellahs?) Cute and colourful illustrations back up the fairly simple text. Definitely a great daddy-daughter read. 

Charlotte's best bit: The cuddly lion "not scared!"

Daddy's favourite bit: Cool illustrations by Jane Chapman

Rating: 3 out of 5

Monday, 27 September 2010

Does a Kangaroo have a mother too?

Does a Kangaroo have a Mother too?

Written and Illustrated by Eric Carle

Published by HarperCollins Children's Books

Oh dear, we fell into the trap of picking up another Eric Carle book we hadn't seen before but it's pretty formulaic stuff so if you're a fan of Carle's artwork, there are some neat little paper-and-paint pics of your favourite animals to look at. The text is basic and repetitive (let's face it, Carle's Hungry Caterpillar was a bit of a fluke one-off wasn't it!) so don't expect youngsters to engage with it much. 

Charlotte's best bit: The whale. 

Daddy's favourite bit: Carle's clever construction and art methods. 

Rating: 2 out of 5

Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Top ten annoyances about children's books

Top Ten Annoyances about Children's Books

Hundreds of thousands of children's books are published every year, and from time to time you see the same old mistakes being made in the creation, publishing and presentation of children's books. So here's a top ten of things that really annoy me about certain children's books. 

1) Text at the bottom of a page can easily be obscured by small and inquisitive hands. Not really sure what the answer to this is, but if you're reading something wordy and your little darling is fidgeting or pawing the pages, it would be great if publishers kept text towards the top of a page so you can carry on reading while your little ones are being busy. 

Culprit(s): The Little Princess books. 

2) Pull out or lift up tabs that are too hard for little hands. Come on! Think about the construction of your books. Have you ever had a two year old sitting on your lap throwing a massive tantrum because they can't pull tabs on or operate the fancy bits on a pop up book? Not fun. Also not fun when they force tabs or foldouts and knacker them on the first reading. 

Culprit(s): Bob the Builder pull tab books. 
3) Horrible or busy text or speech balloon layouts. Particularly offensive when you're trying to teach your child to read and it's not obvious where the next paragraph or piece of text is that helps the story flow. 

Culprit(s): The Meg and Mog books

4) "Scrappy" illustrations. Sure you might list Jackson Pollock as your favourite artist, and believe that the more figurative and impressionistic your work is, the more child-like it will be - that means practically nothing to a youngster. If they can't figure out what your pictures are supposed to be, have a chat with your publisher and see if they'll employ an illustrator who knows their stuff. 
Culprit(s): Chicky Chicky Chook Chook

5) Re-using the same idea over, and over, and over again. Great for a couple of books but ultimately boring for both children and adults if they hunt the rest of your books down only to find that they're all the flipping same! 

Culprit(s): Sadly, Eric Carle tends to do this with a lot of his animal books. 

6) Dull as ditchwater TV tie ins. The kids love the show but the books suck. Come on, get the scriptwriters working on the show involved at least. If the book just uses a few pictures from the TV show but pads it around an utterly rubbish story, kids won't want to read it more than once. 

Culprit(s): The Chuggington TV Tie ins. 

7) Complicated character names in toddler books. Again, if a child can't instantly recognise and bond with your characters, you've lost them on the first page. 

Culprit(s): Neil Gamain and Dave McKean

8) Stingy with the stickers. C'mon, sticker books must cost pence to produce. A sticker book that has about ten stickers isn't worth the paper it's printed on. If you're a parent you want those things to keep your little ones entertained for ages. Be generous with the stickers, you know it makes sense. 

Culprit(s): Some of the Peppa Pig sticker books

9) Overdoing it with the gross. Poo is funny, farts are funny, bogies are funny. People eating bogies are funny. But please, spare us more and more kid's books filled with bodily functions. Kids seem to be able to figure out the gross stuff fine by themselves without your help, thanks. 

Culprit(s): Why does earwax taste so gross?

10) Prices. You have a hit TV show tie in, you've produced a 5 page book with 4 words per page. You're charging £7.99 for it. You're having a laugh. 

Culprit(s): Pretty much anything to do with shows produced by H!T.


Willy the Dreamer

Willy the Dreamer

Written and Illustrated by Anthony Browne

Amazon Link: £5.24

Published by Walker Books


Stop that tittering at the back. Willy is the name of a rather busy and imaginative little chimp and the Willy series are superb and surreal flights of fantasy. Anthony Browne is the new Children's Laureate and you can fullyunderstand why he was chosen, his books are fantastic and I'm green with envy at Browne's artistic capabilities. Picking a path between the great surrealists like Rene Magritte and Salvador Dali, half the fun for children is finding the hidden bananas in every picture while (arty farty) adults (like me) will enjoy figuring out which famous surrealist's paintings are being aped (pun intended). 

I've been hoping Charlotte would take to these books and she loves them. Phew!

Charlotte's best bit: Willy the Monster

Daddy's favourite bit: A lovely little nod to Dali's "Persistence of Memory"

Rating: 5 out of 5

The Incredible Book Eating Boy

The Incredible Book Eating Boy

Written and Illustrated by Oliver Jeffers

Amazon Link: £3.89

Published by HarperCollins Children's Books

Oliver Jeffers is definitely one of my favourite children's book authors and illustrators. He's got a slightly cartoonish and surreal eye for detail and this story tells a slightly darkly tinged tale of what happens when you develop a taste for doing more than just reading books. Red books taste better than green or yellow ones, did you know? 
The Incredible Book Eating Boy is a superb book though judging by some of the colour plates, a fair amount of book abuse happened behind the scenes, and not just with the ones that Henry eats. Find (if you can) several pictures in the book that were lovingly painted across the pages and covers of old trashed books themselves. 
The moral of the tale is that books are better enjoyed as intended and if you take to eating them instead of reading them, you could end up finding out what the irish term "Boke" means. 

Charlotte's best bit: "Cat done a poo, Daddy!"

Daddy's favourite bit: A superb painting splayed across the cover of an old encyclopaedia. 

Rating: 5 out of 5 

Saturday, 18 September 2010

Bargaintastic at the Cancer Research UK Charity Shop

After dropping off 10 bags of assorted children's wear, old toys and shoes at our local Cancer Research UK Charity Shop I spotted these two books nestling amongst the kid's book section. I'm a sucker for the superb illustrations and peerless presentation of Dorling Kindersley books and though The New Way Things Work is a bit "old" for Charlotte, the Animal Encyclopaedia was definitely appreciated and she loved looking through the superb diagrams and photos (even the icky bits). 

Looking at Amazon it's fairly easy to pick these up cheap and used, but both books were in superb condition and cost me the grand total of £3.50 for the pair. We'd perviously also managed to pick up the entire Beatrix Potter works in one huge hardback volume for £2 so the moral of this story is that it's worth rifling through your local charity shops just on the offchance that you'll strike it lucky too. 

Meg, Mog and Og

Meg, Mog and Og

Written by Helen Nicoll

Illustrated by Jan Peinkowski

Published by Puffin Children's Books

From one witch to another, and in this Meg, Mog and Owl tale Meg manages to propel herself back in time and meet cavemen and a particularly large (and extremely hungry) Woolly Mammoth. Of this week's crop of books, strangely this one wasn't that much of a hit with Charlotte though she did ask what "bubble and squeak" was, so I guess I'd better hunt through the library for a recipe book next. 

Not bad but not as interesting or as frenetic as other Meg and Mog books. 

Charlotte's best bit: Og eating all the Bubble and Squeak. 

Daddy's favourite bit: Super cool hip and groovy hippy cavemen. 

Rating: 2 out of 5

Winnie Flies Again

Winnie Flies Again

Written by Valerie Thomas

Illustrated by Korky Paul

Published by Oxford University Press

The great thing about being a witch is that you never have to take a driving test. But how about eye tests? Winnie finds out exactly why the skies seem filled with hazards, and flying on her broomstick with Wilbur means a hazardous journey every time. Charlotte shows no signs of getting bored with the Winnie Witch books which is just as well, because just when we think we've exhausted the library's secret stash of Winnie Witch books, we find another one hidden away. 

Great story and hats off to Korky Paul yet again for his scratchy and ever-so-detailed illustrations. A cracking tale, just don't forget your reading glasses!

Charlotte's best bit: Wilbur's twizzly tail after a near miss with a hang glider. 

Daddy's favourite bit: Plenty of "Fish who could wish" spottings. 

Rating: 4 out of 5

Thursday, 16 September 2010

Chicky Chicky Chook Chook

Chicky Chicky Chook Chook

Written and Illustrated by Cathy MacLennan

Amazon Link: £4.49

Published by Boxer Books

I've no idea why I haven't reviewed this book before as we bought it ages ago and it always ends up being packed in the travelling bag whenever we go on holiday. So after several readings on our break recently, I thought I'd put it up as a review. 

Put simply, this is the bounciest piece of nonsense you could possibly read to your child but its fizzing pace and effortless rhyming makes it an instant favourite. Cathy MacLennan has produced a series of similar bouncy little rhyming tales for youngsters and though they'll like the fuzzy chicks and the buzzy bees in this, the illustrations tend to be a bit messy and confusing for youngsters used to something a little more clean and easier to identify. Nevertheless, reading this at a pace almost like a song is the way to go, and it will be requested again and again. Lowering your voice to start with then raising it at "that certain point in the book" is also recommended. 

Charlotte's best bit: Everyone getting rained on and getting soggy. 

Daddy's favourite bit: BANG! CRASH! FLASH!

Rating: 3 out of 5

The Foggy Foggy Forest

The Foggy Foggy Forest

Written and illustrated by Nick Sharratt

Published by Walker Children's Books

We all know that Nick Sharratt's a genius and pretty much everything he commits to paper is worth reading but this book has a neat little trick up its sleeve that's bound to be a hit with your toddlers. Each page starts off as a silhouette before a turn of the page reveals what (or rather who) is hiding in the Foggy Foggy Forest. Getting your child to guess what the outlines are before slightly lifting up the page to reveal what's underneath is a great trick, before turning the page to confirm what's there.

Great fairy tale characters appear in the book in new ways that are bound to delight your children. As I've said countless times of Sharratt's books, the illustrations are crisp, bold and colourful and the fog gimmick is excellent. 

Charlotte's best bit: Guessing what all the ice creams are that Red Riding Hood is serving. 

Daddy's favourite bit: The Ogre, doing Yoga. 

Rating: 4 out of 5

Not Now Bernard

Not Now Bernard

Written and Illustrated by David McKee

Published by Sparrow Books

Oof, back after a holiday in Cornwall and with a couple of weeks off work left, I thought I'd hit the library and refresh Charlotte's last selection. After all, great as The Gruffallo is, you can only take so many readings before you're reciting the page after the one you're actually on before you've even turned over. 

Back with David McKee and yet another moral tale of parents and their relationship with their kids. Naturally, this isn't some boring psychology paper, but a neat little story showing what happens when you ignore your child or take them for granted. As with all McKee's books, the illustrations and characters are instantly a hit with children and even though this was first published in 1980, it still has plenty to say about parent-child interaction today. 

Charlotte's best bit: The monster eating Bernard up, every last bit. 

Daddy's favourite bit: The look of indignation on the monster's face when he's sent to bed. 

Rating: 4 out of 5

Friday, 3 September 2010

The Thingamabob

The Thingamabob

Written and Illustrated by Il Sung Na

Published by Meadowside Children's Books

We really enjoyed Il Sung Na's "A book of Sleep" and The Thingamabob is similarly atmospheric, simple and relaxing. Telling the tale of an Elephant's discovery of a mysterious object, it explores his flights of imagination and gently takes you through to the fun conclusion with Sung Na's trademark watercolour illustrations. 

Superb little book, and stupidly cheap at the moment. 

Charlotte's Best Bit: Elephant trying to fly. 

Daddy's Favourite Bit: A slightly rude reference to Elephantine toilet habits 

Rating: 3 out of 5

I want to go to the fair!

I want to Go to the Fair!

Written and Illustrated by Tony Ross

Published by Andersen Press

Though it's now almost impossible to read the Little Princess books without putting on Jane Horrocks' squeaky regional accent when reading out the Princess bits, the books are still hugely enjoyable and well loved by Charlotte.

The Little Princess has her heart set on winning a goldfish at the local fair. Things don't go according to plan, but thanks to some timely intervention by The Queen, The Little Princess ends up having a fun day anyway (aww wouldn't we all like a mum like that?)

Great stuff as ever and thoroughly recommended if your toddler's a fan of the TV series.  

Charlotte's best bit: The Queen "going upside down!"

Daddy's favourite bit: Yep, would have to agree with the Queen flashing her undercrackers as being quite funny.

Rating: 3 out of 5

Thursday, 2 September 2010

Winnie in Winter

Winnie in Winter

Written by Valerie Thomas

Illustrated by Korky Paul

Published by Oxford University Press

Ever wondered what Winnie's winter attire is like? Or what her house looks like covered in icicles? Wonder no more, as Winnie slides into a pair of stripey thermals and embraces the cold and bitter wind of winter. For a while until she decides to weave her magic to perform her own unique brand of not-quite-so-global warming. 
Pick and choose any book in the Winnie Witch series and you're in for a treat, and Winnie in Winter is no exception. Great storytelling, haphazard magic, the fabulous Wilbur and of course plenty of scratchy and detailed art from Korky Paul ensures that this is yet another cracking good entertaining Winnie Witch yarn. 

Charlotte's best bit: Spotting "The Fish who could Wish" making a cameo appearance. 
Daddy's Favourite Bit: The great running visual gag in the first few pages after you're shown Wilbur stalking a dozy frozen bird on the bird feeder. 

Rating: 4 out of 5

Panda Bear, Panda Bear, What do you see?

Panda Bear, Panda Bear what do you see?

Written by Bill Martin Jr

Illustrated by Eric Carle

Published by Puffin

Testing the sense once again, with a wildlife-friendly theme, Eric Carle and Bill Martin Jr dip back into the animal kingdom for another book taking your toddler on a journey to discover endangered species. As ever, it's Carle's art style that's the star of the show because the book treads an already well worn path laid down by Polar Bear, Polar Bear, What do you hear and Brown Bear, Brown Bear what do you see?

That said, the animal characters are bold, colourful and if you read books aloud like I do, you'll enjoy trying to come up with funny voices for each species as you turn the page. 
Charlotte's best bit: The "Spaceship Girl".

Daddy's favourite bit: The way Carle produces little mini illustrations of the bigger pages / animal pictures for the last page of the book.

Rating: 3 out of 5

Meg's Car

Meg's Car

Written by Helen Nicoll

Illustrated by Jan Peinkowski

Published by Puffin

Oh dear. I think we've overdosed on Meg and Mog books and it took a slightly lacklustre entry in the series to finally turn Charlotte off the books altogether. Though this could coincide with her interest in dressing up as a Princess rather than dressing up as a witch (oh the humanity, a month before Halloween too!)

This Meg and Mog adventure sees the Trynamic Trio off on a picnic in a distinctly odd looking vehicle. As you've come to expect from Meg's spells, things don't quite go according to plan when she tries to conjure up a magic car to take them on their day out. Though it's a fairly throwaway story it has its moments, but Charlotte really didn't think much of this in comparison to the other books in the series we've covered in this blog. Ah well...

Charlotte's Best Bit: Mog's choice of car. 

Daddy's favourite bit: Meg hanging upside down from a branch with her dress over her head. 

Rating: 2 out of 5


Cinderella's Bum

Cinderella's Bum (and other bottoms)

Written and Illustrated by Nicholas Allan

Published by Red Fox Children's Books

Nicholas Allan's books are just the right side of cheeky, and there's none cheekier than this tome, an ode to the peachiest of peaches, Cinderella's bum. We learn that it's OK to have a bit more padding back there these days, and once again we also learn that Nicholas Allan has something of a twisted obsession with royalty. Did you know, for instance, that Queen Victoria had a very large bum? I could only guess before, but it's nice to have it confirmed in a toddler's book. 

If you're familiar with Nicholas Allan's other works you'll know what to expect and kids will love the daftness of it. 

Charlotte's best bit: Father Christmas using his bottom as a fire detector. 

Daddy's favourite bit: The Evil Queen's attempt to ingratiate her bottom with her mirror.

Rating: 3 out of 5

The Gruffalo

The Gruffalo

Written by Julia Donaldson

Illustrated by Axel Scheffler

Published by Macmillan Children's Books

Good grief, what on earth do I think I'm doing telling you to go and buy a book that, by rights, should be woven into every parent's psyche as soon as they leave the hospital with their new bouncing bundle of joy. Surprisingly enough, though I'd always had this book on "the list" of books to grab for Charlotte's mini library, I never quite got round to getting a copy. But with Amazon selling it for a piffling £2.99 there's really no excuse. This was a library copy and you could tell it was a book that had received a lot of attention over the years as it was pretty much battered and bashed but intact all the same. 

The Gruffalo is a beautiful little tale of how brain power can win out over brawn, and how a clever little mouse manages to avoid being on the menu of various creatures living in a deep dark wood. Naturally there's a twist, and the tale is deliciously written in rhyme with plenty of repetition to make sure your children remember it and cherish it. 
Julia Donaldson seems to be the goddess of toddler books, and Axel Scheffler's detailed illustrations perfectly compliment the narrative. Utterly sublime. 

Charlotte's best bit: The poisonous wart on the end of the Gruffalo's nose and / or Owl Ice Cream.

Daddy's favourite bit: "Oh help! Oh no! It's a Gruffalo!"

Rating: 5 out of 5