2017 Reviews

Reviews of all the shortlisted books for the English 4-11 Best Picture Books Awards

A Beginner's Guide to Bear Spotting by Michelle Robinson, illustrated by David Roberts

Bloomsbury ISBN 978-1681190266

You’d better make sure you know your bears, if you are going for a walk in BEAR country, is the premise of the book.  A tongue in cheek story that conveys facts and information that bears are not always cuddly and cute.  This would appeal to those who love the great outdoors as it cleverly weaves facts on bears in a quirky style that likes to tease the reader.

The illustrations are beautiful line drawings in autumnal colours that draw you deeper in to the woods encouraging the reader to spot squirrels, fungi and fauna on a journey together.   The bear drawings on a graph paper background give the sense of being on an exploration, making notes for future reference.  At times the story and language is clearly aimed at the American reader and the book swings between telling us that bears are dangerous in the narrative but then shown to be sweet in the pictorial, followed by the word of caution.    The coping strategies of meeting bears with pepper spray, bubble gum and a teddy bear would certainly raise a smile.  Fortunately as we are told at the beginning ‘chances are you won’t even see a bear ‘so coming face to face with a brown or black bear whether our ‘stuffed’ bear can help us or not, is safely assured on this side of the pond!

Liz Connolly

A First Book of Animals by Nicola Davies Illustrated by Petr Horacek

Walker Books ISBN: 9781406359633 £14.99

Nicola Davies, the zoologist and award-winning author of A First Book of Nature, presents a collection of poems about creatures from all over the planet. The poems are divided into five sections:: Big and Small; Colours and Shapes; Animal Homes; Animal Babies and Animals in Action
Over 50 different creatures are revealed, ranging from the Blue Whale to the Hummingbird, Newts, Komodo Dragons, Birds of Paradise, Sailfish, and Polar Bears. The poems vary too from two lines to longer pieces. Some convey information, while others evoke a feeling about a creature. Particularly memorable are the descriptions of a Whale Shark “Like a piece of fallen starry sky”, the Blue Morpho Butterfly “like a dream you can’t quite remember”, the Bumblebee Bat “Like a flying, furry toffee and the Wolves whose howls claim “the land and all that’s in it as their own.” The lyrical text is paired with illustrations by Petr Horacek that are detailed and atmospheric. There are dazzling portrayals of flamingos, anemones and clown fish, Arctic tern, fireflies and jellyfish. Davies also includes sections that give additional information such as the difference between animals, reptiles and birds and how animals use spots and stripes. The book is a glorious celebration of life in the wild and will inspire awe and wonder about the animal world.

Brenda Marshall

Ada Twist, Scientist by Andrea Beaty Illustrated by David Roberts

Abrams ISBN 9781419721373  £10.99

Ada Marie is a curious girl. Saying nothing until the age of three, she suddenly starts asking her parents questions at every opportunity. Why are there pointy things stuck to a rose? Why are there hairs growing inside your nose? Why don't we call it a granddaughter clock? She embarks on fact-finding missions and conducts scientific experiments, all in the name of discovery. One day, there is a terrible stink in her house. Even though she may not find the root cause, Ada isn’t afraid to set about trying, nor is she afraid of failure. She forms and tests a hypothesis about what might be causing it - which leads to a stint in the Thinking Chair…

This is a beautifully illustrated rhyming story about a family learning to support a child’s curiosity. Ada is a likeable character who has all the traits of a great scientist. The book responds well to the call for greater representation of girls and diversity in STEM subjects and industries (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics). Indeed Andrea Beaty says she took her inspiration from Ada Lovelace, the mathematician and very first computer programmer, and Marie Curie, who discovered the elements polonium and radium, whose work led to the invention of X-rays. The book is fun to read and should inspire children to follow their passions.

Brenda Marshall

Atlas of Animal Adventures, by Rachel Williams and Emily Hawkins, illustrated by Lucy Letherland

Wide Eyed Editions ISBN 978-1847807922

This is the second book in the series, following in the steps of the brilliant Atlas of Adventures and it doesn’t disappoint! Once again, it invites readers of all ages to travel the world – this time to visit incredible creatures and their habitats.

The large, double-page spreads are detailed, presenting a wealth of information about animals and their survival. Whether you’re interested in ‘Hanging out with fruit bats in Zambia’, ‘Going north with narwhals in Canada’ or ‘Kick-boxing with red kangaroos in Australia’, this book is packed with facts and is beautifully laid out. Children will love the humorous touches throughout the book – look out for the parachuting puffin, harp-playing heron and hippo asleep on a pillow!

The text is extremely well written and combines with the cleverly designed images to make it an ideal book for KS2 classrooms; supporting research into animals, habitats, survival and migration.

Atlas of Animal Adventures is a book that would entice children to return to it again and again, sharing nuggets of information and tempting them to find out more – in the words of the introduction: ‘which animal will you adventure with today?’

Melanie Hendy

Circle by Jeannie Baker

Walker Books ISBN 978-1406338010

This is another fantastic book by an author whose use of colour and collage always invites the reader to be part of a journey.  In Circle we join the bar-tailed godwits on their ‘Circle of Life’ as they migrate across the world. A young man dreams of flying with them and as the story ends we see him taking his first steps, having spent time in a wheel chair, to protect the birds. In her postscript the author stresses how important it is to ensure the birds’ feeding grounds around the world are preserved, something which the young man shows we can all play a part in.

Sally Wilkinson

Day of the Dinosaurs, by Dr Steve Brusatte, illustrated by Daniel Chester

Wide Eyed Editions ISBN 978-1847808219

This book invites you to ‘put away your preconceptions’ and travel to the day of the dinosaurs. Unlike many books on these prehistoric creatures, the colours used are original and vibrant; you’ll discover purple, pink and red dinosaurs because as the books states, ‘the truth is no one knows what colours the dinosaurs were.’  This text journeys from the Triassic to the Cretaceous period, providing a chronological guide to these incredible animals. The text directly appeals to the reader, assuming that you are there, in the heat and danger of the time and useful field notes are provided from time to time to inform you of the different species’ diet and weapons. If you’re a dinosaur-fan, looking for a well written book that is detailed, informative and creatively illustrated, then look no further!

Melanie Hendy

Illuminature, by Rachel Williams, illustrated by Carnovsky

Wide Eyed Editions  ISBN 978-1847808868

illuminature enables the reader to explore ten of the world's most diverse environments and reveal their hidden secrets with a magic, three-coloured lens that illuminates each page in a kaleidoscope of colour.

Discover the dark and mysterious creatures of the night, who live and survive in the shadows, then switch the lens to be transported into daylight, to see which creatures roam during the daytime. Finally, use the third lens to reveal the luscious plant life of every habitat as you travel through a jungle, a reef, grasslands, woodland and uncover a world that never sleeps.  The organisation of this book encourages children and adults alike to be awed by the magical illustrations and the use of the coloured viewer; then be inspired to find out more about the animals and habitats they have just viewed using the texts on the following pages.  The clever use of black and white background to the text and the use of a line drawing and negative, x-ray like image emphasises the nocturnal and diurnal animals.

Jane Myerscough

It Starts with a Seed – Laura Knowles and Jennie Webber

words & pictures ISBN 978-1910277171

‘It starts with a seed.  But where does it lead?’ Thus begins this enchanting book which takes the reader on a journey through the life cycle of a sycamore tree, travelling through the seasons and years as the seed becomes a sapling and then later a tree.  The reader, turning each page, discovers how the tree develops over time and along the way is introduced to the woodland creatures who make the tree their home.  The final page folds out to reveal the poem which constitutes the text and a series of facts about the sycamore tree.

The appeal of this book lies in its beautiful blend of information and poetry, as the text is written in a lyrical rhyme, reflecting the rhythm of life explored.  The cream background throughout provides a calm base for the warm earthy watercolour illustrations, with pencil providing the fine detail.  A worthy addition to the primary bookshelf.

Carolyn Swain

Nibbles: The Book Monster, by Emma Yarlett

Little Tiger Press ISBN 978-1848692879

This fun, livley and interactive picture book will have children hooked from start to finish.  At first Nibbles is safe and secure in his crate until he starts to do his fvourite thing… nibble. Nibbles is a mischievous book monster – he chomps, munches and nibbles his way through fairy tales that don't belong to him. Can you help catch him and put him back in his own story?

The interactive nature of the book means that children will love to lift the flaps, peek through the peep holes, and chase Nibbles through a fantastical world of books they are familiar with.  They will love to see what mischief he gets up to.  The detail in the illustrations will have the reader spotting new features on every read.

Jane Myerscough

Oi Dog!, by Kes & Claire Grey and Jim Field

Hodder Children's Books ISBN 978-1444919592

Oi dog, the hillarious sequel to Oi frog, is a wonderful picture book where illustrations and language fit together seamlessly. Oi dog is a delightful book to read!  It had myself and my children laughing out loud from start to finish. This book lends itself very well to being used in school settings to teach and revisit phonics and the clever use of rhyme encourages children to easily learn the text and join in aloud. The illustrations are integral to each page with plenty of brightly coloured, comedic detail to keep young readers engaged and bring the story to life, make this story a family favourite. Frog is fed up with being sat on and has decided to change the rules.  Dogs no longer sit on frogs and they now sit on logs, which means everyone else is going to have to sit somewhere different too.  Will the cats want to sit on gnats? Will the dragons like sitting on wagons? And more importantly, where will frog sit?

Jane Myerscough

Pharaoh's Fate Solve the Ancient Egyptian Mystery by Camille Gautier and Stephanie Vernet Illustrated by Margaux Carpentier Translated by Catherine Bruzzone

b small publishing  ISBN 9781909767980  £12.99

Learn about ancient Egypt in this thrilling interactive detective adventure.  It is Thebes in the year 1255 BC. Someone is plotting to murder Pharaoh Ramesses II and you have to try to stop them. First you choose your outfit, shoes and your hairstyle. Next you find your amulet and gather your tools, and then the mission starts.  The investigation involves visiting scribe school, the apothecary, The Valley of the Queens, Thebes town centre, The Temple, the Opet Festival and the Palace of Ramesses, as well as learning about gods and goddesses and deciphering hieroglyphs. Sections are tabbed allowing you to find what you want quickly. Facts about ancient Egypt are absorbed without realising it, as the reader tries to solve the mystery. An analysis of the motives of all the likely suspects is provided, and the unmasking of the culprit is very satisfying. The cover is very attractive and the illustrations are stunning. Particular highlights are the map of Egypt, the Opet Festival and the Royal Palace. This intriguing book brings ancient Egypt to life and is highly recommended.

Brenda Marshall

Secrets of the Sea,  by Kate Baker, illustrated by Eleanor Taylor

Big Picture Press ISBN 978-1783704347

This is an exquisite book. As the title suggests, it explores the underwater worlds including seaweed forests and coral reefs revealing surprises with every turn of the page. It shares nuggets of information about creatures like the Common starfish which can be found in rock pools around Britain to microscopic organisms like Sea sparkle which glows fluorescent blue and Sea butterfly (on the front cover) which is no larger than a grain of sand. Each page has just enough information to whet the reader’s appetite and inspire them to find out more. The illustrations are beautifully detailed and should be enjoyed again and again by older children and adults alike – but shhh… remember it’s a secret!

Melanie Hendy

The Big Book of Bugs – Yuval Zommer

Thames & Hudson ISBN 978-0500650677

This delightful book opens with a task: ‘Can you find exactly the same fly 15 times in this book?’  We are warned, however, to, ‘Watch out for imposters.’  Young readers will also enjoy searching and for those who need to know, a handy page at the back discloses the answers.

After introducing us to the ‘Bug Family Tree’, where bugs are categorised, the book is divided into double-spreads on each of the bugs you might expect to find in your garden.  Others are organised thematically, such as ‘House-Loving Bugs’ and ‘Bug Words’ where the reader is taught how to ‘talk like a bug expert’. Each page begins with a key question which is then explored.

Instead of the usual photographic images we expect considering the subject matter, Yuval Zommer draws gentle illustrations in a soft dreamy palette, comically exaggerating some features of the bugs. The layout of the text is accessible for young readers with short bursts of text interspersed amongst the beautiful scenic compositions, giving plenty to explore.

Carolyn Swain

The Brontës: Children of the Moors by Mick Manning and Brita Granström

Franklin Watts ISBN 978-1445147314

Mick Manning’s connection with Haworth, birthplace of the Brontës and where he also grew up, helps to transport the reader into the children’s life in the village.  Aimed at a younger readership than the Brontës novels, the book introduces  how the three sisters, Charlotte, Emily and Anne came to be writers.  It provides an insight into their childhood early in the 1800s, including the hardships they endured and their love of the moors.

Sally Wilkinson

The Hole Story, by Paul Bright and Bruce Ingman

Andersen Press ISBN  978-1512439502 £11.99

I was drawn to this book because I love a pun and the title of this book is a good one. The Hole Story is a story about two holes and how they try to find a home. Wherever they go they cause problems: a hole in a sock; in a tyre; in the bottom of a boat and a jug and lots of other places until they finally find a permanent home as a mouthpiece and hole for fingers to play a beautiful wooden flute. The ‘hole story’ comes to life with the lively funny illustrations capturing the adventures of the pair of holes, Hermione and Hamish. I loved the way these two characters changed colour, like chameleons, to match the environment they find themselves in. There is also a reminder of The Gingerbread Man story for me as each page sees them running away from the havoc they cause on each page.  It opens up lots of possibilities with children to explore when holes are good and when they cause problems. A thoroughly lively and enjoyable read.

Jo Bowers

The Journey, by Francesca Sanna

Flying Eye Books ISBN 978-1-909263-99-4

This is a very special book. It is the voice of two children who have had to leave their country and make a long and dangerous journey from their country at war to a safe space. The voices are a collage of many voices that the author and illustrator, Francesca Sanna, spoke to, all who had had to make similar journeys. This makes it a very compelling story to understand the reality and real people behind the words, ‘migrant’ and ‘refugee’ that we hear too many times in the news today. What makes this book stand out is the strength within this real voice, the simple but powerful   language that captures the personal journeys and the beautiful illustrations that enhance the words of the story. The colours of the pictures give us a sense of the danger and fear while at the same time shows us the details of the many journeys too many people in the world have to take for their own safety. This is a book that will reach into the hearts of everyone who reads and shares it.

Jo Bowers

The Liszts, by Kyo Maclear and Julia Sarda

Andersen Press ISBN 9781783445158  £12.99

The Liszts are a gloomy family of obsessive list makers. They make lists most usual and lists most unusual. They make lists in winter, spring, summer and fall. They make lists every day except Sundays. Mama Liszt, Papa Liszt, Winifred, Edward, Frederick, Grandpa and the cat make lists all day long. There is little verbal communication or interaction. Then one day a gentle visitor arrives. He's not on anyone's list. Will the Liszts be able to make room on their lists for this new visitor? How will they handle something unexpected arising? Edward, the middle child, whose lists went on for 31 pages, finally feels free to ask his companion the questions that children have about the world. The visitor asks Edward to “start something and see what happens”. The story reminds us of the importance of leaving room for spontaneity and things that aren’t already on the list(s).

There is much humour in the book, such as the pun on 'lists' and Liszt as the family surname, and the statement “Sundays were listless”. Some of the lists are funny, such as"lists of dreaded chores and small winged insects" and Grandpa making lists of his greatest admirers and most fearsome enemies, followed by “The cat did the same.”

Julia Sarda’s stylish illustrations are a visual treat, with a touch of retro, gothic, Art Deco and Gustav Klimt. It is a surreal, strange, complex dark and engaging book, with overtones of the Adams family, Lemony Snicket and Edward Gorey.

Brenda Marshall

The Stone Age: Hunters, Gatherers and Woolly Mammoths, by Marcia Williams

Walker Books ISBN 978-1406370836

Did you know that Jericho was built before Britain was cut off from Europe and became an island?  Or that writing developed in Mesopotamia before Stonehenge was built? This delightfully amusing and informative book is packed with facts and explanations about how humans evolved.  Marcia Williams excels in rich detail and The Stone Age is no exception: there are information panels; a time line that runs throughout the book giving details of existence in Australia, the Czech Republic and the Middle East as well as Britain; stories are told in comic strips by Sparrow and his mother about the last of the Neanderthals, hunter-gatherers, how people discovered fire, how dogs became domestic friends, the shift from a nomadic to a farming life and the end of the stone age.  All of the stories are commented on by Rocky, the rock hyrax, who appears at the side of each page, adding more facts and comments: “Hyraxes are herbivores (plant eaters). Homo sapiens will eat any Stone Age thing!” and “Tame wolves? That’s it, I’m out of here!”

Although the tone of the images is humorous, Marcia Williams confronts death and danger from predatory animals, and the more brutal aspects of life in the Stone Age as a natural part of the story of the evolution of Homo sapiens and the gradual demise of the Neanderthals.  In one story, Mouse, a girl from the Woolly Clan, finds a Neanderthal mother and baby frozen in a cave. The baby is still alive and she rescues it but is under attack from wolves. She is rescued by her father who wants to throw the baby to the wolves but she persuades him to bring the baby up with the Woollies.  Through this poignant story, Marcia Williams gives an explanation of the mixing of Homo erectus and Neanderthals:

Mouse named the baby Root. He grew to be a strong fearless hunter. The Woollies never saw another Neanderthal and they believed that Root was the last of his kind. Mind you, when Root grew up he married a woman from Clan Woolly and many of their children, so I am told, were stocky and strong as cave bears!

The Stone Age offers so much for the classroom. Not only is it packed with facts and explanations about the evolution of our species but the variety of types of text offer possibilities for looking at the difference between dialogue, explanation, information and opinion (Rocky the hyrax has plenty of those!). The comic strip stories use a variety of shapes of frame to pace the narratives – a series of four narrow frames to increase the narrative tension and double page spreads which give masses of detail about the lives of the people and their hunting or farming practices.  The dialogue is witty, for example, the Neanderthals, who only had wooden weapons and did not develop in the same way as Homo erectus, speak backwards!  With her usual light touch, Marcia Williams presents a complex narrative in a way that readers will savour and return to time and time again.

Eve Bearne

The Truth According to Arthur, by Tim Hopgood and David Tazzyman

Bloomsbury ISBN 978-1408864999

A funny book about fibbing, poor Arthur has a bad day when he crashes his big brother’s big bike into the family car, so he is then faced the problem of how to tell his mum.  The cartoon illustrations give ‘truth’ a presence that inconveniently lurks in the background.  The book is a delight as it helps to explain those idiomatic phrases we use with children who find telling the truth difficult; bending, stretching, covering up, disguising, hiding, ignoring and finally looking truth square in the eye.  All children will enjoy the fun and humour created through Arthur’s imaginative explanations that become more exaggerated as the story progresses.  The illustrations and use of text give the story a good pace and the characters both real and imaginary have wonderful expressive faces.  The two page denouement ensures the important message of owning up and saying sorry is always best and will be praised.  A good moral message and expertly delivered by the author and illustrator.

Liz Connolly

This Little Pebble, by Anna Claybourne, illustrated by Sally Garland

Franklin Watts ISBN 978-1445149691

Starting from a pebble found a young boy’s pocket (along with a penny, some fluff, a button and a left glove) this book explains how the earth is formed of rock plates which – very slowly - have created mountains and valleys, sometimes causing landslides and earthquakes.  It covers the range of geological forms, telling how the centre of the earth is made of melted rock which sometimes erupts through volcanoes then focusing on grains of sand formed by constant rubbing of wind and water.  Returning to the pebble, there are pictures and descriptions to help identify if it is made of limestone, flint, quartz or gneiss amongst many other types of stone. Caves, Stonehenge, fossils, precious stones – all are explained in straightforward language supported by illustrations which provide a wealth of detail.  The book ends with activities using pebbles from pebble skimming to pebble art and there is a clear glossary, index and contents list.  This book is a classroom ‘must’ as it deals with the complexities of geomorphology, using precise technical terms but is clear and accessible.  The direct tone is pitched just right to bring young readers into an exploration of how ‘this little pebble’ was formed.

Eve Bearne

Tidy, by Emily Gravett

Two Hoots ISBN 978-1447273998

Anyone who is keen on tidiness (as well as those who suffer at their hands!) will relish this story of Pete the badger ‘who tidied and cleaned and kept everything neat’. The narrative tells of how he keeps the forest neat but the witty illustrations, showing him vacuuming the forest floor, creating a mound of bin bags full of leaves and eventually digging up all the trees so that they can’t shed their leaves, add to the growing sense of anxiety about his activities.  Eventually, he takes desperate measures so that he can keep the forest neatly swept, but realises that this is a mistake and vows to tidy up less.  The rabbits frolic with plastic cleaning gloves on their heads and the fox delights in being covered in leaves, but … readers will judge for themselves whether Pete has really reformed. Emily Gravett has once again created a humorous and engaging book which gently presents a message. It is a delight.

Eve Bearne

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