Thursday 28 June 2012

The Yoga Ogre by Peter Bently and Simon Rickerty (Simon and Schuster Children's Books)

If there's one thing that should make our nation swell with pride, it's the sheer quality and class of our children's books. Time and again on ReadItDaddy I'm asked why most of the books we review rate so highly. The simple answer is that they really are that good, and it's almost impossible to find anything negative to say about the majority of books that come our way.

Which is why it's lovely to show Charlotte books like "The Yoga Ogre" that are funny, well written, deliciously illustrated and set the bar so high that it makes you wonder how you'd ever break into children's writing or illustration yourself (I'm trying, believe me I'm trying!)

Ogden, the Ogre in this story is a lovely well-meaning fellow (who doesn't eat goats, just an entertaining array of pies 12 times a day). Waking up with that all too familiar (to me) feeling that his tum is wider than it is tall, our Ogre chum decides to embark on some exercise and tries various sports (with hilarious results).

"How about Yoga?" the townspeople suggest, after Ogden's various failed attempts at keep fit end up nearly levelling the town's most important buildings. So Ogden dutifully tries it out.

Here at ReadItDaddy we already love Simon Rickerty's illustrations (as seen in our previous Book of the Week "Unfortunately") and coupled with Peter Bently's entertaining rhymes, The Yoga Ogre is another surefire hit.

Charlotte's best bit: The horses hiding when Odgen decides to take up being a jockey

Daddy's favourite bit: Identifying all too readily with Ogden's woes about his large tum

Rating: A well deserved 5 out of 5 stars - Book of the Week

(This book was kindly supplied for review by Simon and Schuster Children's Books)
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Keith the Cat with the Magic Hat by Sue Hendra (Simon and Schuster Children's Books)

If we were crazy enough to have cats at ReadItDaddy Towers I would definitely ensure that at least one of them was A) A ginger tom and B) called Keith. Keith the Cat with the Magic Hat is the latest children's book from Sue (Barry, the Fish with Fingers) Hendra. As you'd expect from Sue, it's a slightly surreal but ridiculously adorable story of a young cat trying to impress his peers when an unfortunate incident with an ice cream cone makes him look a bit daft in front of them.

Keith shrugs off the incident by claiming that the ice cream cone is, in fact, a magic hat - and the chocolate flake is Keith's all-powerful magic wand. By pure luck Keith's magic fakery impresses his friends enough, but can Keith summon enough magic to defeat an angry dog?

You'll have to read the book to find out. Sue Hendra's style is to compliment her superbly sharp and cute illustrations with entertaining stories, and Keith the Cat is no exception. If you loved Barry the Fish with Fingers or Norman the Slug with a Silly Shell, then this is more charming silliness in the same mould and we love it!

Charlotte's best bit - Keith waving his magic wand and coming up with a very long string of magic words

Daddy's favourite bit - Sue Hendra's pin-sharp and beautiful illustrative style.

Rating - 4 out of 5 stars

(Please note - This book was kindly supplied by Simon and Schuster for review)
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Monday 25 June 2012

The Walter Foster "Learn to Draw Disney" Books

Regular ReadItDaddyers will know that for years I've been scribbling away in the vague pretence of being artistic. 3 years at art college aside, I'm still pretty hopeless when it comes to drawing anything specific so love any tutorials or books that show you the process broken down and simplified.

The Walter Foster "Disney Magic Art / Learn to Draw" series of books are legendary stateside so it was quite something to find a bunch of them tucked away in the various merchandise shops on our recent trip to Disneyland Paris (more of which will be coming up on my wife's excellent travel blog, CanIWalkMummy). Prices for these vary from "That's crazy cheap" to "Oh my god, HOW MUCH?" but at just under 7 Euros a pop, I grabbed three.

1) Learn to Draw: Disney Princesses
2) Learn to Draw: Tangled
3) Learn to Draw: Toy Story

The books (by various artists and authors including the excellent Heather Knowles a legendary DeviantArtist) strip down the process of drawing famous Disney characters to the bare bones, giving budding artists some inspiration on how to draw the characters in various poses themselves.

The Disney Princesses book is the toughest to work through, they are extremely difficult to get absolutely spot on even when the instructions are followed to the letter. Again the Rapunzel book is similarly tough but the Toy Story book is the best of the bunch (probably because most of the Toy Story characters are fairly easy to draw anyway). Each character starts off as a bunch of gestural construction strokes and basic shapes, then gradually you pencil in the features, the detail and then top the whole thing off with colour and shading.

If you've any interest in drawing Disney characters (or have an extremely artistic 4 year old daughter who demands the very best quality from your scribblings!) then these are worth grabbing. They are available through Amazon though be warned, most of the books are under 20 pages long so if you think a pound a page is good value for the Disney Princess book, you won't mind some of the exorbitant charges resellers are laying on these.

Charlotte's best bit: Learning to draw Snow White and Belle

Daddy's favourite bit: Drawing Jessie from Toy Story

Rating - 4 out of 5 stars
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Paul Lamond Games celebrates 30 years of 'Dear Zoo' with new puzzles and games

Dear Zoo is 30 years old! Astonishing isn't it, and to celebrate the 30th Anniversary - and of course the book's timeless appeal, a collection of new activities, games and puzzles have been created by Paul Lamond Games, based on Rod Campbell's original book and illustrations.

'Dear Zoo' was a massive favourite of Charlotte's when she was still at the book chewing stage - enjoying the 'surprise' behind every lift the flap page.

Though she's a little old for the puzzle, it's perfect for toddlers who are just beginning to find their way with shapes and jigsaws, comprising two jigsaw puzzles (a four piece puzzle featuring that naughty monkey and an 8 piece puzzle featuring that rather large elephant from the Dear Zoo book).

We buy quite a lot of puzzles for Charlotte and are often disappointed by the quality of puzzles meant for younger children. They're often very frustrating to put together (too flimsy, and often don't sit flat or stay flat even on a very flat surface) so it was nice to note that the Paul Lamond puzzle was of the highest quality, with good sized chunky pieces that stay put.

The box (decorated like the crate in the Dear Zoo story, neat!) is attractive and screams of a quality product.

Check out the rest of the Dear Zoo anniversary range on the Paul Lamond Games website.

Charlotte's best bit - Nice chunky pieces, easy to place and handle

Daddy's favourite bit - Very high quality product, nicely packaged and boxed. Perfect for toddlers.

Rating - 4 out of 5 stars

(This item was generously supplied to us for review through Highlight PR)
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Friday 15 June 2012

Insensitive bullying by council closes down child's 'School Dinner' blog

Argyle and Bute Borough Council are getting a hard and fast lesson on 'The Streisand Effect' this morning after stepping in to stop a child blogging about her school dinner.

9 year old Martha Payne writes (or at least 'wrote') an entertaining light-hearted blog detailing her daily lunch. Well written and entertaining (even on occasions when she forgot her camera and had to hand-draw her meal with the cutest illustrations ever), Martha's blog was fairly innocuous but the powers that be deemed it 'harmful to the council's reputation and undermining services offered in council-run schools'.

Martha was hauled out of her lessons one morning, taken to the head teacher's office and told to cease and desist her blog, and cease taking photos of her lunch (Martha's dad explained on the blog that it was not the school's decision, and that they had actually been quite supportive of Martha and her blog, the decision was purely Argyle and Bute Council's).

A petition has already sprung up to try and reverse the decision. Martha's blog wasn't just a school dinner blog, it also involved raising money for food charities around the world to feed the starving (and a separate JustGiving account has been set up to help Martha reach her 2K target. Somehow I think she's going to manage it!)

The media has exploded with this story. The Daily Telegraph contacted Argyle and Bute Council for comment (they refused) and Jay Rayner, Food Critic, got in touch with someone at the Council Offices to confirm the decision and they did (as doubts were raised whether a council would be this stupidly heavy handed - guess what folks, this is the UK, of course they would!)

It seems a real shame that a child can start up a fairly well-meaning (and quite funny) blog, and get jumped on like this, in an era when the press would have you believe that most kids can't string two words together without resorting to txt spk. Go Martha. You rock, and I really hope that this continues to blow up spectacularly in Argyle and Bute Borough Council's face. With the amount of coverage it's getting on Twitter and Facebook, there are going to be a lot of red faces at the council offices this morning.
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Good Little Wolf by Nadia Shireen (Jonathan Cape PB Ltd)

Oh my, now how on earth are we going to review this without breaking our hard-and-fast rule of 'no spoilers?'

Alright let's give it a try. Good Little Wolf is a rather cute, tiny and friendly little fellow who is kind to everyone, always eats his vegetables and always looks after granny. But something deep down inside him tells him that there's more to being a wolf, so when he meets a big bad wolf walking through the forest one day, Little Wolf undergoes something of an identity crisis.

Nadia Shireen's lovely simple illustrations (which reminded me, rather deliciously, of The Moomins for some reason) underpin a neat and clever little story of exact opposites. Little Wolf is undeniably cute, and (struggle, strain, try not to spoil the book) the end of this story made me want to hug Nadia Shireen for bucking the age-old children's book trend of ending books in a particularly predictable way.

Children love the baddies in a story, and they certainly seem to love anything to do with wolves (whether Red Riding Hood is involved or not) so Nadia Shireen's thoughtful clever mashing together of classic fairy tale ideas with something more contemporary and original is a real breath of fresh air. Loved it!

Charlotte's best bit: Little Wolf's knitting ability

Daddy's favourite bit: The way the book ends. Wish more children's authors would do things like that!

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
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Traction Man Meets Turbodog by Mini Grey (Red Fox Picture Books)

When I was a mere whippersnapper, I had a vast collection of Action Man stuff. Armoured cars, the Pursuit Craft (a sort of transformable aeroplane, boat, car thing) and a whole army of the fuzzy headed scar-faced eagle-eyed soldiers themselves (with all their uniforms and associated gear). I kept telling myself "This isn't playing with dolls, this is proper boy's stuff!" but it was really. So the inspiration for Traction Man was probably boys like me who could imagine an adventurous landscape picked out in the confines of the tiddly back garden.

In Traction Man's latest adventure, a quest to climb Mount Compost Heap results in disaster, as Traction Man's faithful hound Scrubbing Brush ends up binned by a rather germ-obsessed daddy. Scrubbing Brush's replacement is TurboDog, a battery-powered electronic dog with about as much personality as a toaster. Nevertheless, Traction Man vows to find his scrubbing brush chum. Will he win the day? As you know by now, no spoilers you'll have to find out by reading the book yourself.

Mini Grey mixes together beautiful comic-like illustrations with a lantern-jawed hero and his miniature world of adventure. For children, there's the thrill of wondering what's going to happen with each turn of the page. For adults, there are so many in-jokes and clever little asides in the Traction Man books that they're an absolute delight (and I suspect that Mini Grey has a massive protrusion on the side of her face permanently from sticking her tongue in her cheek constantly!)

Slick, thoroughly entertaining and beautifully presented. A must-buy.

Charlotte's best bit: Traction Man fighting the nefarious bin denizens

Daddy's favourite bit: Some rather iffy in-jokes. TurboDog's battery hole, in particular, made me wince.

Rating: 4 and a half out of 5 stars
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Thursday 14 June 2012

Five books that are perfect to prepare for that first day at school

It's probably one of the most important days in your child's life. That first step over the threshold of their new school. "Big" school, not Nursery or Preschool. Charlotte's about to take that step and she's understandably nervous (to say nothing of how ' cat on hot bricks' my wife and I are!) So recently we've been piling through several books designed to soothe the nerves, showing how the bookworld's favourite characters got on when they first started school.

Here's a top five of our favourites (in no particular order).

1) "I Want a Friend! (A Little Princess Book)" by Tony Ross

Tony Ross' "Little Princess" has soared in popularity, boosted by the success of the TV show but when we first reviewed this book, we weren't quite prepared for just how sensitively (and cleverly) this book deals with a child's first nerve-racking day at school. The Princess goes incognito, and soon finds it quite hard to make new friends and settle in. But she's not the only child there with the same problem - and soon enough, the Little Princess learns that sometimes you might not find a friend when you're looking really hard - they might find you instead.

Very touching little book, probably the best LP book to date.

2) First Week at Cow School by Andy Cutbill and Russell Ayto

This was a recent addition to our reviews list and we loved its mix of raucous humour and cow in-jokes. Daisy the Chick-Cow is off to school and her nervous mum Marjorie is there to make sure her offspring does OK in her first week at cow school. She struggles, but thanks to some timely intervention by Daisy's chicken chums, things turn out rather well for the cow that emerged from an egg all those books ago.

Funny and colourful. We loved it.

3) Topsy and Tim Start School by Jean Adamson and Belinda Worsley

The Topsy and Tim books are fantastic, serving up life lessons with two of the most enduring and popular characters in children's books. Now the subject of a series of iPhone / Android apps as well as a successful book series, they show no signs of dropping in popularity.

This book shows what happens when the twins have their first day at school. Looking out for each other, and helping each other to take in the flurry of information that comes with their first day at school, Topsy and Tim find out that school is fun and interesting and nothing to be scared of. Of the books we looked at for this list, this is probably one of the books that probably matches most children's actual first school experience and one they can identify with more easily than most.

4) Cactus Annie by Melanie Williamson

It's extremely unlikely that your child will be enrolling in Cowgirl school in September, but just in case, here's a fun book recommendation featuring a cute little cowgirl called Cactus Annie. She's not much use on a horse, she can't rope cattle for toffee and her first few days at school don't go particularly well. With an end-of-term contest looming, can Cactus Annie brush up her skills to save the day? Yep you'll have to read on to find out.

Reading between the lines and dancing between the lovely illustrations from Melanie Williamson, the lessons in this book are exactly the same as the lessons all children will encounter at their proper school. Dressing things up in cowgirl clothes just makes it all more fun.

5) Splat the Cat by Rob Scotton

This book was given to us through the excellent BookTrust programme, and it's become one of our staple favourites at home. The story of Splat, a slightly fuzzy and worrisome cat and his first day at school is a comedic take on the sort of things cats get up to. Learning about chasing mice, drinking milk and being slightly sneaky, Splat soon finds out that having a mouse for a best friend can cause all sorts of problems. Poor Seymour.

Lovely artwork and a great story from Rob.
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Super Daisy and the Peril of Planet Pea by Kes Gray and Nick Sharratt (Red Fox Children's Books)

Daisy, the intrepid 6 and a half year old superspy, superhero and all round supergirl is back for another adventure, pitting her wits against the most nefarious threat to humanity ever encountered. Peas!

As you've probably read in Daisy's other books, Daisy does NOT like peas, and when Planet Pea threatens to collide with earth, meaning each and every meal (and pudding) ends up laced with the horrid green vegetable, Daisy must do something. Daisy must, in fact, become Super Daisy!

Cheered on by her friends, Daisy sets out to thwart the pea-green menace before it's too late.

We loved this book, not just because it's another excellent 'Daisy' book but because of the inventive layouts, great 'lift the flap' panels and the superb pop-up-book-like paper mechanics on some of the pages. Imbuing the book with an action-packed pace, does Daisy succeed in her quest? You'll have to read it and find out.

Charlotte's best bit: Peas in EVERYTHING even ice-cream (which she said she'd eat anyway)

Daddy's favourite bit: Seeing how long it took before Charlotte proclaimed "Daisy is ME!" (about 3 seconds).

Rating: A Peatastic 4 out of 5 peas
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Tuesday 12 June 2012

A Dinosaur Called Tiny by Alan Durant and Jo Simpson (HarperCollins Children's Books)

Tiny the Dinosaur is...well...tiny! Emerging from his egg to proud parents, Tiny never really grows much bigger and finds life as a tiddler a bit tough in a world where his friends and family all tower above him.
Mocked by other dinosaurs and often left out of their games, Tiny feels lonely and folorn until one day he has a chance to prove his worth and use his size to great advantage.

Though the tale may feel overly familiar to most, Alan Durant gives 'A Dinosaur Called Tiny' enough cuddly charm and creates enough tension to make this a page turner for very young children. Jo Simpson's bright dinosaur illustrations are delightful. Really the only drawback with this book is the familiarity of the core story but if your kids love dinosaurs and particularly love seeing the underdog win the day, they will most certainly love this.

Charlotte's best bit: Tiny being cute!

Daddy's favourite bit: Jo Simpson's big bold lines and great shading.

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
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Monday 11 June 2012

First Week at Cow School by Andy Cutbill and Russel Ayto (HarperCollins Children's Books)

What do you get if you cross a cow with a chicken brought up as a cow? Andy Cutbill and Russell Ayto's  series of 'Daisy' books are hilariously entertaining and with Charlotte due to start school in September, I've been hunting out books to do with those first faltering steps into proper education.

Obviously Charlotte won't be learning how to chew the cud or, er, lay cowpats but that's what's in store for our hapless chick-cow as her mum dutifully waves her through the gates along with the other calves.

As you can imagine, poor Daisy doesn't find it easy going at cow school but with Marjorie enlisting the help of some tenacious chickens, Daisy soon discovers she has talents that the other cows lack.

Filled with humour and charm, it's a great addition to the 'Daisy / Marjorie' stories and a worthy book of the week.

Charlotte's best bit: Poo practice. Of course.

Daddy's favourite bit: The chickens gently persuading the schoolteacher to alter the curriculum to suit Daisy a bit more.

Rating: 5 out of 5 moos, book of the week
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Thursday 7 June 2012

Buffy, an Adventure Story by Bob Graham (Walker Books)

Don't get too excited, this book has absolutely nothing to do with a certain vampire-hunting femme fatale, it's all about a rather charming little dog called Buffy. The talented sidekick of a rather mean magician, Buffy always steals the show every time he's on stage. Eventually when he's kicked out by the jealous magician, Buffy undertakes a journey across the world to find his place, and hopefully find a family that will love and adopt him.

Bob Graham's book is full of warmth and cuddliness. A bit of an obscure classic, but very welcome nonetheless.

Charlotte's best bit: Buffy the busker

Daddy's favourite bit: The honky tonk family of musicians

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
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Friday 1 June 2012

Keeping the scary books out of the book stack - Should we or shouldn't we?

(Pictured: La Visite De Petite Mort (Little Death's Visit) by Kitty Crowther)
Jenny Colgan's article on French children's picture books / bedtime reading struck a chord with me. On our weekly sojourn through the book world, Charlotte and I usually cover books that are light, breezy, colourful and fun but every now and again she spots something in the stacks that is the direct opposite of all of those books. Dark, scary, even slightly disturbing. 

Obviously you'd have to go a long way to find anything genuinely harrowing or disturbing like the books Colgan's article covered, but it begs the question, why do children actually quite like being scared, and why are monsters, witches, pirates and other nefarious book-dwellers amongst the most popular characters in Children's Picture Books?

When I was a child, three things terrified the hell out of me above and beyond anything else and they were real-world things, not dark imagined monsters or fictional nasties

1) Heights. Even to this day I am terrified of heights, particularly in buildings (I can stand on the summit of Ben Nevis without fear but the Eiffel Tower scares the pants off me). 

2) Clowns. Again, even to this day I can't stand them. 

3) Waxworks or mannequins. Yep you've guessed it, a childhood fear that has still stuck with me. 

Gollum, from The Hobbit? Naw, he's just a bug-eyed cave dweller and never really scared me when I first read his whisperings in the dark. The Giant Under the Snow? Alright, I'll admit to feeling a tingle of fear while reading about his leathery skeletal cohorts in John Gordon's timeless classic. But when Charlotte picks "The Gruffalo" or "Not Now, Bernard" from the book stack for a bed-time read, I wonder if she secretly wishes the Gruffalo would eat that dratted smug little mouse, or Bernard's monster would eat his ignorant parents (and boy, wouldn't they deserve it!) 

I've noticed that quite a few of the french books are available from Amazon UK. I am sorely tempted to pick one up just to see if they are genuinely disturbing, or whether french parents and kids are secretly enjoying a whole different side to children's picture books that us cotton-wool-wrapping parents are missing out on. 

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Socks by Elizabeth Lindsay and Nick Sharratt (David Fickling Books)

This jolly colourful and fun book popped itself into our library stack this week but as the old adage goes...never judge a book by its cover.

We've previously loved Pants and More Pants by Giles Andreae and Nick Sharratt to bits (and they're still both regular bed-time reads), so it seemed like Socks was going to be a dead cert for an instant 5 out of 5 but...hmm, I don't know what to say really, it's disappointing in a way that's hard to explain. Perhaps the bar has been set too high by those books and that's why Socks is a bit of a dud.

Sharratt's illustrations are as good as ever, but the book just seems to meander along making pretty awful sock-based puns before dribbling away to nothing. Charlotte is a tough critic, even tougher than me and in our weekly review schedule she's always the one who passes final judgement on a book (four years old and a tyrannical critic! Be afraid, be very afraid!) If it's her kind of thing, it will be demanded and read and re-read until I can barely stand to open the cover again. If it's not, and if it just doesn't float her boat, it gets put to the bottom of the pile and passed over in favour of the others.

Sadly, this is the case with Socks. It's very rare to see a mis-hit involving Sharratt but this is one pongy odd sock at the bottom of the wash pile alas.

Charlotte's best bit: A tiny glimmer of a smile at the sock-submarine

Daddy's favourite bit: Bright vibrant colourful illustrations that can't lift a book that has no flow or rhythm at all, sadly.

Rating: 1 out of 5 stars. Owch. 
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