Friday, 7 November 2014

All Time Top 5 Picture Books

Since trying to review some recent picture books I decided that I should weigh these up against a barometer of some classics that, even as I age, I won't forget. Feeling like John Cusack, in no particular order:

Chloe and Maude by Sandra Boynton - Cats with attitude. This classic is out of print so I'll be stealing my childhood edition of this when the provident man arrives. Sophia's don't hike. 

Cuddly Dudley by Jez Alborough- Long before the name was associated with the unpleasantly rotund character of latent yore - Dudley was a penguin who did not want to be cuddled but his huddling waddling cuddling brothers and sisters were not willing to take no for an answer. 

The Megamogs by Peter Haswell- Unbeatable drawings, style and story. This book was an inspiration; the name of our first cat, (Kevin, RIP) amongst other games such as disco bedtime were based on the nocturnal behaviours of these jazzy cats. Definitely a book that stays with you as I can still vividly remember some of the pages in intricate detail. 

Ned and the Joybaloo by Hiawyn Oram, illustrated by Satoshi Kitamura - This is one of the best imagined and orchestrated books of my memory. Although the message and lesson of this book are sappy, the heart that is evoked throughout the story mean that morals diffuse effortlessly from the page and don't ever seem preachy. 

Rag Doll Press by E J Taylor - I can't remember exactly why I loved these stories so much. Something to do with how it was a reward to have them read to me at all - they are quite long - is probably a part of the reason. I’d like to pin some of my current publishing aspirations onto these characters too; Biscuits, Button and Pickles, this one’s for you. I remember sibling rivalry, detailed drawings and a somewhat unpredictable plot. 

There is an unintentional progression in this list of reading difficulty of these books. All of them are highly illustrated but each probably indicative of a specific year of my childhood, which I think speaks volumes about how these texts have made a lasting impression.

Would any of these make your Top 5?
The Adventures of Mr. Toad by Tom Moorhouse and David Roberts 

This is a charming introduction to The Wind and The Willows that develops the story of Mr Toad across key plot points of the well-loved stories. The illustrations are fairly love/hate depending on how well acquainted you are with the original texts - I think they are different and stylised enough to stand apart from the originals. 

Best bits: I love the way that the eponymous willows are illustrated in this book and Mr. Toad's cross-dressing, as ever.

Worst bits: The mouths and eyes of the characters are slightly nightmarish.

Buy the book from the Oxford University Press website here.
Betty Goes Bananas by Steve Anthony

The first book of a series about a toddler that cannot resist a tantrum. This book provides parents with the grounds to discuss the silliness of getting cross and upset about menial things. Both Betty and Mr. Toucan are strong characters with a diversely interesting parent/child relationship. I side with Mr. Toucan and hope he gets more of a spotlight in one of Steve Anthony's books to come.

Best bits: bold use of colour with a minimal yet effective palette.

Worst bits: Betty doesn't seem to face any comeuppance for her bad behaviour.

Buy the book from the Oxford Children's Books website here.
What a Wonderful World by Tim Hopgood

Very colourful highly illustrated book, no real concept or story, however - perhaps better for fans of the song rather than children. This book uses the words of the well known song, verboten with a CD of Louis Armstrong’s track in the back. Not a particularly interesting read but the song itself has a good message of tolerance and diversity. A good book for a project in schools because of the multiple platforms that you could explore within a lesson surrounding this book. 

Best bits: Eye-catching illustration

Worst bits: Somewhat lacking in story - more of an homage than a piece within itself. 

Buy the book from the Oxford University Press website here.
This Book Just Ate My Dog by Richard Byrne

This is metafiction for kids. Bella is taking her dog for a walk until something very unexpected happens. Byrne creates an interactive picture book that without any overly sickly or twee qualities. The illustrations are simple but effective and the story is easy enough for a child but entertaining enough for adults too. One that you'll be happy to read again and again.
Maybe worth buying in hardback - you are encouraged to shake this book.

Best bits: The way that the big fat dog is almost bigger than Bella!
Worst bits: A struggle to find bad points with this one, personally, not all that keen on the illustration style but it's not at all offensive.

Buy the book from the Oxford University Press website here.

Thursday, 30 October 2014

Apples by Richard Milward

Apples is a tragic, troubling and weird read — but not a bad one either. The origin-ally named Adam and Eve move in different circles at school. Adam is an awkward, unpopular kid, uneducated about his changing body and clueless about girls. Eve is self-aware, beautiful and popular, spending her time drinking, taking drugs and sleeping around. The narrative is split between Adam and Eve, with interjections from other characters, a butterfly and a lamp post. 

There is a lot in this book, by which I mean there are a lot of concurrent stories intersecting. There’s violent and sexual abuse, teenage pregnancy, terminal illness, OCD, drug abuse, addiction, petty crime, depression and manslaughter to name a few, but Milward somehow manages to make all of these take a backseat because really this book is about an awkward kid fancying a girl who is way out of his league. 

This book is undeniably coming-of-age but not really in a bildungsroman sense; the characters progress and change but they don't grow up or learn any significant mind-altering lessons about themselves and I'm glad because that isn't the context in which this book works. The language and content is offensive, the action is often repulsive but the glossed way that the narrative reports but doesn’t condemn allows for the story of these characters to be told — you don't have to like it, I think you're encouraged not to. 

Best bits: Consistent references to popular culture, particularly fashion and the snobbery that comes with it. Pink toilet roll, gelled hair and Fila are essential to this book.

Worst bits: The chapter that is entirely backwards. Although I appreciated the attempt at ‘form’ it quickly became boring to decipher yreve drow and, I'll admit, I skipped it.

Not for the faint hearted - older teens, knowledge of late 90s early 00s pop-culture useful but not essential. 

Keywords: grim up north, poverty, alco-pop, donnay, fila.

Buy the book from the Faber & Faber website here.
Replica by Jack Heath

This is a cinematic thriller with a chilling core wrapped deep within twists, turns and constant surprises. Although this book took a while to warm up, the pace grows exponentially and by the end you are left gasping for breath. 

Jack Heath uses a select crew of characters (and he uses some of them more than once) that some reviewers argue are under-developed but, isn't this distance a likely conclusion of the fact that his characters are - in fact - trying to interact with a robot? 

This is a timely novel that raises questions about how technology is evolving, what defines a person or being and anticipates resultant problems of identity. Replica is easily spoilt and so this review is light on plot details, suffice to say that if this book starts as a marathon, it ends as a sprint. 

Best bits: Action filled climax on-top of climax - journeying deeper into the servers holding the webs of this complex story together.

Worst bits: For some it was the rather abrupt ending, but for me it took a while to get into this book and so waiting for the story to actually begin was the worst part.

A teen book with clear political messages that draw attention to how we form who we are. Perfect for sci-fi fans but don't let that put you off - plenty of romance too!

Keywords: LGBT, identity, technology, thriller.

Buy the book from the Oxford University Press website here.

Scarlet Ibis by Gill Lewis

Animal stories aren't generally my thing but — if there was a book to change my mind — it’s Gill Lewis’s Scarlet Ibis. 

The narrative is centred around Scarlet and her younger brother Red who escape from the troubles of their concrete block of flats into dreams of being alone together in the Caroni Swamp. Red is fascinated by feathers, which he collects, and these serve as a comfort and  solace to him throughout the book. Whilst Lewis weaves facets of a more general 9-12 narrative into her book; the unconventional family threatened by Social Services, meddlesome yet ultimately caring neighbours, the perspective of the story and beauty of Lewis’s language transcends the confines of the genre. Scarlet cares for her depressed mum and autistic brother until disaster separates them. She must then fight, with the help of some unexpected friends, to piece her family back together.

“A new life. A lie. A new me. Is this what happens when you step into someone else’s life and leave behind your own? What if I'm asked about my family? Do I write Red out of my new life too?” (91)

A powerful, coming-of-age story about hope and understanding. Lewis’s writing is heartfelt and compelling throughout. 

Best bits: The things that Gill Lewis leaves unsaid — her subtlety really gives this book heart.

Worst bits: Suspension of disbelief sometimes goes a little far and events unfurl in improbable patterns. In places the action just feels like it wouldn't actually happen that way.

A fantastic book for children of the targeted 9+ age bracket (and adults too) - read if you love Michael Morpurgo.

Keywords: adventure, heart, care, determination, strong female lead, diversity.

Buy the book from the Oxford University Press website here