2015 English Book Awards - Reviews

The shortlisted books. Winners announced 13 May 2015

Atlas of Adventures.jpgAtlas of Adventure, by Rachel Williams, illustrated by Lucy Letherland

Wide Eye Editions  ISBN 9781847805850

This wonderfully large book is packed with detail, colour and, of course, adventures. It invites the reader to visit the five continents of the world and start exploring. The double-spread pages are beautifully laid out and showcase diverse experiences including sleeping in glass-roofed igloos whilst watching the Northern Lights, showering with elephants in Chiang Mai and snorkelling in the Great Barrier Reef.

Children will delight in poring over the illustrations that convey a lovely touch of humour in the form of animals engaged in hilarious behaviour – a highlight has to be the macaque monkeys’ snowball fight!

There is an adventure to inspire a spirit of wanderlust in every child within the pages of the book and the mix of vibrant illustrations and concise facts is clear and informative. Did you know that an elephant’s trunk can lift heavy logs but is also ‘dextrous enough to pick up an object as small as a coin’? This is guaranteed to appeal to readers across the age range.

Mel Hendy

Gravity.jpgGravity, by Jason Chin

Andersen Press  ISBN 9781783441976

In his simply written book, Jason Chin takes the complex concept of gravity and explains its importance and impact through brightly humorous paintings, accompanied by the bare minimum of text. He uses objects and places, familiar to children, to explore the possibilities of a world without gravity. Further information that would be demanded by those whose interest has been understandably piqued, is supplied in an illustrated afterword which provides additional explanations of mass, matter, and force. This book will undoubtedly provide a stimulating and entertaining introduction to this force and thus a welcome addition to any primary teacher’s resource bank.

Georgina Merchant

Half A Man.jpgHalf A Man, by Michael Morpurgo, illustrated by Gemma O'Callaghan

Walker Books ISBN 9781406351330

Grandpa is been badly scarred, having been torpedoed during World War 2. His face is disfigured and he has three half fingers on one hand and no fingers on the other. Michael dreads visits from Grandpa who is uncommunicative and unsmiling. Michael's mother compounds the situation by insisting that he does not look at Grandpa and never mentions disfigurement.

When he is 12, Michael goes to visit Grandpa in his home on Bryher. The two fish together and bond. The island visits continue. Years later Michael finds out that Grandpa does not smile because the skin on his face does not stretch and is painful. In the summer after he leaves school, Grandpa tells Michael the whole story of how he became ‘half a man’. Michael gains insight into the damaged relationship between his grandparents and his mother. A year later Grandpa dies, and the letter he leaves Michael brings about reconciliation within the family. Grandpa, too, is reunited with Jim Channing and others lost at sea.

Gemma O'Callaghan's superb illustrations enhance the story and encourage reflection. Appropriately, her characters lack features and seem distant. The colours and style are reminiscent of World War 2 posters. My pupils loved the double page picture of the destroyer and the two men jumping into the sea, and the calm of Michael and Grandpa on the boat. The illustration of Grandpa's mantleshelf encapsulates key moments of his life. The children were very moved by the picture of the scattering of the ashes, especially the silhouette of the family grouping. The gannets that feature throughout the book reminded them of aspects of Paul Gallico's ‘The Snow Goose’.

We also enjoyed researching Dr McIndoe, the plastic surgeon mentioned in the text, and one of his ‘Guinea Pigs’, Eric Pearce, to whom the book is dedicated.

This is a short, poignant, beautiful book about trauma, disfigurement, courage, family relationships, rehabilitation and the impact of war across generations. It is highly recommended for older key stage 2 pupils through to adults.

Brenda Marshall

In My Heart.jpgIn My Heart: A book of feelings, by Jo Witek, illustrated by Christine Roussey

Abrams Appleseed  ISBN 9781419713101

‘In My Heart: A book about feelings’ catches the eye with its heart shape cut-outs right at the centre of the front page, a lovely reminder of the multilayered emotions that children are learning to understand.  This would be an interesting book for an adult to share with children to see how they relate to the ideas and also to develop their vocabulary and encourage talk about feelings.   It  has a good range and balance between positive emotions - happy, brave, calm, hopeful - to silly and proud, feeling mad, broken (healed by extra kisses), sad, afraid and shy.

Christine Roussey’s simple illustrations are of a young girl showing her feelings on one side of this board book alongside the text, whilst on the opposite page is a symbol to mirror the description of how the heart is feeling, such as a bright star for happiness and an elephant for feeling sad.

It does pull at the heart strings and makes the readers feel all the better to realize that all our hearts are “like a house, with all these feelings living inside”.  A good message to share.

Liz Connolly

Teacher a Monster.jpgMy Teacher is a Monster!, by Peter Brown

Macmillan Children’s Books  ISBN 9781447257479

How many of us find that once we perceive someone a particular way, it seems hard to view them differently?  If you have experienced a change of heart about someone, then you will appreciate the theme of this humorous tale, which is dedicated to ‘misunderstood teachers and their misunderstood students’.

The wide-eyed hero of our tale is terrified of his tyrannous teacher – to Bobby she is literally a monster, green skin and all.  But when they come across each other in the park, where Bobby goes ‘to forget his teacher problems’, he has to re-think his views.   ‘…a gust of wind changed everything’ as Bobby becomes Miss Kirby’s hero by rescuing her favourite hat.  Over the course of the day, Bobby then observes his teacher quacking at the ducks, playing with paper aeroplanes and generally demonstrating likeable qualities.  As Bobby’s perception alters, Miss Kirby slowly metamorphoses from a green monster into a human, and Bobby discovers that ‘monsters are not always what they seem’.  This is an excellent book for exploring perception with readers in the 4-7 age range.

The humour of Bobby’s dilemma is wonderfully portrayed in the illustrations and particularly in the exchanges between teacher and pupil as they sit awkwardly together on a park bench.  Much of the story is told through a series of speech bubbles, whilst the palette of greens and browns used in the illustrations hints at the monster lurking beneath the surface.   The book closes by reminding young readers that we all have the capacity to be a monster at times.  As the author states on the endpages: ‘Nobody’s perfect!’

Carolyn Swain

Orion and The Dark, by Emma Yarlett

Templar Publishing  ISBN 9781783700288

This is a beautifully written book, with engaging illustrations that help to tell the story of a little boy’s fear of the dark.  What’s unusual here is that Dark is represented as a friendly being, and the book reveals why Dark really isn’t that scary after all.  There is unmistakable humour throughout this tale, and Orion is a very believable and likeable character.  The book itself is beautifully produced, with an original approach.  It’s easy to see how this book could help a child to overcome a fear of the dark, but it also provides a great starting point for exploring childhood fears of all kinds - after all, Orion is also afraid of other things, such as girls, wardrobes, spiders, and even his Gran!  This is a book that engages the reader and, for a book about the dark, it’s surprisingly colourful and light-hearted. A perfect way to address a seemingly irrational childhood fear: we can’t think of a bookshelf (especially one with dark corners!) that wouldn’t benefit from its presence.

Rob Sanderson

Shackleton.jpgShackleton’s Journey, by William Grill

Flying Eye Books  ISBN 9781909263109

Shackleton's Journey, celebrating 100 years since Endurance’s epic journey, is illustrator, and now first time author, William Grill’s visual re-telling of  Ernest Shackleton's extraordinary expedition crossing the Antarctic from one pole to the other. He uses a limited pencil-palette of blacks, blues, browns and white space to convey the emptiness, harshness and loneliness of the environment. The story is told in fascinating detail, down to the names not only of all crew members but also of the 69 accompanying dogs, in short blocks of text interspersed with illustrations. The narrative contains direct quotes from the crew themselves, providing additional human insight and realism to the story as it unfolds, drawing one in to their truly amazing feat and the courage it took to complete it.  This is a book that one can envisage children returning to repeatedly, sharing nuggets of surprising information and wanting to find out even more.

Georgina Merchant

Smelly Louie.jpgSmelly Louie, by Catherine Rayner

Macmillan Children’s Books  ISBN 9780230742505

This is a gem of a book; a perfect example of text and illustrations combining to create a story that younger children will want to read again and again. Louie, a loveable Lurcher, is freshly bathed but this has given him a problem - he has lost his special smell. He spends the day, with help from an assortment of creatures, trying to recreate his distinctive aroma.  The story follows a simple structure and there are frequent opportunities for children to predict what disgusting smell he might find next.

When Louie eventually feels that he has regained his perfect smell, he trots proudly home only to discover an unusual perfume wafting down the stairs. What can it be?  This would be the perfect moment when reading aloud, to peek at the last page and announce to your audience ‘You will not believe how this story ends’.

Catherine Rayner has written and illustrated many beautiful books and this is another one that does not disappoint.

Mel Hendy

Something About a Bear.jpgSomething about a Bear, by Jackie Morris

Frances Lincoln Children’s Books  ISBN 9781847805164

A huge brown bear with wistful eyes fills the front cover of ‘Something about a Bear’ and draws you in - and as you turn each page the language beautifully weaves its story of bears.  This book will be a winner every time for those who love the natural world as the illustrations are quite breath-taking.    A book that will really appeal to a visual learner as the bear is placed in its habitat, strikingly filling each double page. The power and strength of these magnificent creatures is eloquently explained in the expressive text.  The reader also learns of the care for young cubs, the dangers around them and the various diets ranging from fish to bamboo.  It is good to know that the shaggy-coated Sloth Bear, true to type, has a love of seeking honey from hives!

Enticing facts and information on the uniqueness of each bear is condensed towards the back of the book for the reader who wishes to discover more and helpfully there are five website links.  These will encourage children to further investigate the work of conservation and encourage fact finding. A book to delve into and enjoy as both the language and the illustrations are wonderful.  An introduction to eight magnificent bears with the reminder that the most important bear of all is, of course, the teddy bear at home!

Liz Connolly

Shakespeare.jpgThe Comedy, History and Tragedy of William Shakespeare, by Anna Claybourne, illustrated by Adria Meserve

Franklin Watts   ISBN 9781445131870

The presentation of information in this book is exceptional. Each turn of the page provides a fresh artistic vision. The Seven Ages of Shakespeare appear as a grid over two pages. The 7th Age - Afterlife - involves the intriguing notion that Shakespeare was not interested in what happened to his plays after his death. Shakespeare's World is shown as the quadrants of a wheel with small drawings round the rim. School life shows a modern picture of Shakespeare's school room with facts dotted round the page. I particularly like the description of a horn book where printed text is covered with a see-through layer of horn and mounted on wood like a square table-tennis bat.

Throughout the book the tone is playful, but interesting information is provided about Shakespeare's London and Elizabethan theatres. The description of members of Shakespeare's company includes mention of Robin Armin who took over as comedy star when William Kemp left in 1599, and who was responsible for the fool becoming clever and central to the later plays such as ‘King Lear’. It was fascinating to learn that Henry Condell and John Heminges collected Shakespeare's plays after his death and published them as the First Folio.

The Shakespeare's Craft double page is like a drawing of his desk with inkwells, parchments, candles and books. I did not know that the words blanket, gossip, luggage, eyeball, moonbeam, silliness, gloomy and torture first appeared in Shakespeare's work. Even the list of plays is interesting, and we hope the lost plays – ‘Cardenio’ and ‘Love's Labour's Won’ - may turn up. The next section contains beautifully presented one-page introductions to twelve of Shakespeare's plays, with plot, illustrations and additional pieces of information such as that the character Malvolio was included to make fun of puritans who disapproved of Christmas and the theatre. The Glossary is useful and the Further Information section recommends websites. The Shakespeare's Legacy pages show a young, modern audience enjoying his work, and reminds us that developments in media, television and film have enabled reworking of the plays with big casts, special effects, imaginative scenery and real settings.

The book is highly recommended for key stage 2 pupils (ie 7-11 age range).

Brenda Marshall

Five of Us.jpgThe Five of Us, by Quentin Blake

Tate Publishing  ISBN 9781849763042

In many ways, this is Quentin Blake at his best.  Energetic illustrations, washed with colour, accompanying a tale that has more to it than meets the eye.  This is an inclusive tale, telling the story of five friends, each with their own special gift, and when their accompanying adult needs assistance, together they manage to make sure that everyone gets home safely.  There’s a sense of adventure here, and plenty to delight in the illustrations, as the group leave the city and head into the countryside for a picnic with complications!  There’s the typical humour, and above all, the book celebrates the things we can do, rather than those we can’t: positivity on a page!

Rob Sanderson

Imaginary.jpgThe Imaginary, by A. F. Harrold, illustrated by Emily Gravett

Bloomsbury Children’s Books  ISBN 9781408852460

Rudger is Amanda’s imaginary friend.  Together they create and explore an assortment of worlds in the den at the bottom of the garden.  But as Rudger discovers when the sinister Mr Bunting arrives, his existence is dependent upon Amanda, so what would happen if they became separated? Without Amanda to imagine him, Rudger is ‘not really there’ and he is fading fast.  Soon he is running for his imaginary life on a quest to be reunited with his best friend; a journey where he finds himself meeting a whole library of ‘imaginaries’ and even trying to befriend a new child in order to track down Amanda.

This thought-provoking tale raises questions about memory, friendship, the power of the imagination and the loss experienced through growing up.  Largely told from Rudger’s perspective, it is unusual in that the main protagonist could literally disappear at any moment! The reader is constantly on the edge of his seat. Yet we also glimpse other perspectives, all beautifully drawn through Harrold’s prose, such as Amanda’s mum’s ‘imaginary’ from her childhood, the dog named ‘Fridge’.

The novel is characterized by a constant undercurrent of threat as Mr Bunting literally sniffs out and consumes imaginaries, aided by a wraith-like girl, so hauntingly depicted by Emily Gravett.  The atmospheric illustrations are a striking feature of the book, particularly the double-spreads contrasting on one side the ‘real’ world that adults see, and on the other, that of the imaginary.   The ghostly depictions of the terrifying Mr Bunting at work are both startling and horrifying.  At other times, splashes of colour are used to highlight significant themes or to bring the imaginative world to life.

‘The Imaginary’ is a contemporary fairy tale which contains depth and challenge.  It has the power to stimulate intellectual debate in the classroom and could easily be enjoyed by young adults as well as junior-aged pupils.  A very worthy member of the English 4-11 shortlist!

Carolyn Swain

Sleeper and Spindle.jpgThe Sleeper and the Spindle, by Neil Gaiman, illustrated by Chris Riddell

Bloomsbury Children’s Books  ISBN 9781408859643

This is a magical book, with a thread of gold running through its many finely detailed illustrations.  Indeed, the golden thread that runs through the illustrations suggests the weaving together of the Snow White and Sleeping Beauty fairy tales.  Here we have two strong, resourceful female lead characters, and a powerfully told tale.  The book is luxuriant both in language and illustration, and perfectly represents the unique marriage between text and picture that the English 4-11 Picture Book Award seeks to celebrate.  There is a sense of craftsmanship throughout this book, and it exudes a sense of both a book and a tale from another time.  At times challenging, this book is ideal for older readers, and proves that pictures have a place in books no matter how old the reader may be.

Rob Sanderson

Story of Buildings.jpgThe Story of Buildings, by Patrick Dillon, illustrated by Stephen Biesty

Walker Books  ISBN 9781406335903

This sumptuous book tells the story of buildings. Patrick Dillon starts by inviting his reader to create a shelter in a forest. Different environments offer opportunities for different structures, and the author leads us through a range of materials and inventions that have been used over the centuries around the world to create comfortable homes. Then he considers buildings other than houses and concludes that every building has a story to tell. Next Dillon provides examples of exceptional architecture ranging from The Pyramid of Djoser to The Pompidou Centre, and from The Villa Rotonda in Vicenzia to The Straw Bale House in London. In each case he gives the story behind the architecture and the people behind the design and construction. My Year 6 class enjoyed learning about Pericles commissioning Phidias to rebuild The Parthenon, and the sad story of Jørn Utzon who never saw the completed Sydney Opera House. Each building is placed in its background and context, so we learn of the cantilevers involved in the construction of The Forbidden City in Beijing, and the impact of Otis' Safety Elevator on The Chrysler Tower.

Stephen Biesty's intricate, meticulous cross-sections deconstruct each building and help the reader appreciate the vision of its creator. Labels and flaps give technical details. The fold out papers on the Crystal Palace provide interesting information about the technology used and the factories involved in the production of the iron girders and the glass. My pupils were fascinated by the use of arches and domes at The Hagia Sophia, and the use of pattern in The Taj Mahal. The book includes an architectural timeline and definitions of architectural terms.

This is a truly inspirational book for older key stage 2 children through to adults. It is a lavish introduction to how and why people make buildings, and it celebrates creativity.

Brenda Marshall

Book Ate My Dog.jpgThis Book Just Ate My Dog!, by Richard Byrne

Oxford University Press  ISBN 9780192737281

Not all books have special powers but this is no ordinary picture book as the title suggests. One day when Bella is taking her dog for a walk, he quite simply disappears. How will Bella get him back? Young children will have great fun peering closely at the book to see if they can work out where he has gone.

Help arrives in a variety of forms but it also vanishes and so it falls to Bella herself to rescue her pet. However, she cannot do it herself and quickly enlists the help of the reader too.

The text is simple and clear and enhanced by the illustrations of the characters and their wonderfully expressive features. This is a great, interactive and laugh-out-loud book, which would be perfect for sharing with one or two children or even a whole class. Teachers could have great fun encouraging children to predict what might happen next and consider how they could help Bella.

Mel Hendy

Poppies.jpgWhere the Poppies Now Grow, by Hilary Robinson, illustrated by Martin Impey

Strauss House Productions  ISBN 9780957124585

This moving blend of fiction and non-fiction opens with childhood friends Ben and Ray’s carefree playing in a field in France, a place which is later to become a scene of war.  As the story unfolds, the reader follows their journey into adulthood and through the First World War before the book closes depicting the two friends as war veterans.  During this journey, the field where the poppies now grow is constant, providing the backdrop to the events Ben and Ray experience.

A sympathetic narrative poem builds line by line, using repetition and rhythm to excellent effect.  Each page begins with the same repetitive structure: ‘This is the…’ which lends a rhythmic and comforting meter to the text, reminiscent of the traditional nursery rhyme ‘This is the House that Jack Built.’  In stark contrast to the events portrayed, the gentle watercolour illustrations soften subject matter which could be distressing for young children.  Observant and younger readers may also enjoy spotting the tiny mouse who accompanies Ben on his journey.

This is a poignant yet hopeful story of how friendship endures the hardest of times and provides an accessible route into considering the First World War for those in the 4-7 age range. Perhaps the most striking double-spread is the one depicting Ben carrying his friend across no-man’s land, with the solitary line ‘Ben was the soldier Ray found’.

Dedicated to their great uncles who fell in the Somme, this author/illustrator team are commended for the way they have explored the experience of war in a manner that provides reassurance to younger readers.  By the end of the book we have turned full circle and the field in question appears as it was at the start of the book.  Some things have changed but life goes on and the tree which the boys planted near the start of the tale has grown tall and strong.

Carolyn Swain

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