Me And You

Anthony Browne
Doubleday
9780385614894
April 2010
Anthony Browne's wonderful riff on Goldilocks and the Three Bears has the dedication "For all underdogs". Goldilocks is no fairytale character in this version, but a modern little girl in hoodie living in a dull grey terrace. She goes out shopping with her mum. Their gloomy expressions speak of a desolate home atmosphere. Whilst her mother browses longingly in a butcher shop window - you get the impression she is too poor to buy the fresh meat on display - the girl goes chasing a stray balloon. All this takes place on the left-hand page of each spread. Meanwhile, on page right the bear family wake up and go for a stroll. They look like bears but dress and talk like ordinary people. "Daddy talked about his work and Mummy talked about her work. I just messed about," baby bear tells us.

After the girl has entered the bears' house, and they duly return, the tale follows its traditional course but Browne has created a version that will get children thinking and talking and reacting to the clever artistry.

Five achukachicks, of course!



Guji-Guji

Chih-Yuan Chen
Gecko Press
9780958278706
May 2010
Still in his mid-thirties, Taiwanese picture book artist, Chih-Yuan Chen has produced several notable titles, including this amusing tale of a baby crocodile brought up imagining he is a duck. Chen's artwork is marvelously loose and free-flowing, and the book has been extremely well produced (on thick paper with buff page backgrounds) by Gecko Press , a New Zealand publishing house that prides itself on translating and publishing award-winning, "curiously good" children's books from around the world. Guji-Guji was first published in Taiwan in 2003 and then in this edition in New Zealand in 2006. I don't remember seeing it till now, so I am guessing this is its first UK distribution. On their website, Gecko Press claim to "choose books strong in story, illustration and design, with a big 'heart factor'." They certainly did that in this case.



The Land of Long Ago

Elsa Beskow
Floris
978086315771
September 2010
This is one of a large selection of titles by Swedish author-illustrator, Elsa Beskow, made available in English translation by Floris Books. According to the publishing details page this title has not been previously available in English. It was first published in 1923 as Resan Till Landet Langesen. The name of the translator is for some reason not given.
At first sight Beskow's artwork may come across as somewhat naive and dated, but it is undeniably charming and very simply accessible, as is the story. Two children are playing imaginatively on a dead tree trunk. They use a broken umbrella as dragon wings. While they are riding the pretend dragon a mischievous gnome makes it real, and away they actually fly. Floris Books certainly champion this author, calling her 'the Beatrix Potter of Scandinavia'. They even publish an Elsa Beskow calendar. If you haven't heard of Beskow before, visit this website: http://kampanj.bonniercarlsen.se/beskow/meny1.htm



Dragon Feathers

illustrated by Olga Dugina & Andrei Dugin, retold by Arnica Esterl
Floris
9780863157745
September 2010
The well-known traditional tale about a woodcutter's son on a mission to pluck three feathers from a dragon's back. The book was first published in German as Die Drachenfederen in 1993, and Floris Books is to be congratulated for bringing it to an English reading audience (translation by Polly Dawson) because the illustrations by the husband-and-wife illustrating team are exceptionally good and, on some of the spreads at least, medieval in their attention to detail.


The Glass Demon

Helen Grant
Penguin
978-0-141-32576-7
May 2010

At times I had to keep reminding myself that Lin and Michel are both in their late teens (indeed, Michel drives them both around in his car) because their manner is not the teenage manner as more usually portrayed in contemporary young adult literature, and also because the adventure that unfolds is, for all its menace and melodrama, very much in the mould of younger children going out and attempting to solve a mystery without adult intervention.

This all works to the book's advantage and results in a novel that is at one and the same time an older children's mystery and a chilling, Hawthornesque tale of murder and malevolence for adults.

Lin's father, an academic driven by an idee fixe, uproots his family to Germany, determined to discover the long lost Allerheiligen stained glass. Even before entering their rented property they stumble upon the first body - an old man apparently fallen dead while picking apples, small shards of shattered glass noticed only by Lin at the time. Not long afterwards the family is all but completely unravelled when Lin's younger brother comes close to being impaled by a spear while sleeping in his cot.

The local police so closely follow protocol and procedure that the family themselves feel under suspicion.

Just as she did in her first novel, The Vanishing of Katharina Linden, Grant cranks up the drama and excitement with impeccable pace and timing. The story would make a fabulous two-part BBC thriller, expecially because each of the characters is so well-realised, from the ineffectual young stepmother, to the darkly dashing priest. And there would be wonderful bit parts for the stonewalling police.

Can't wait for novel number three!


Roxy



PJ Reece
Tradewind Books
9781896580012
January 2010
There are some things not quite right about this novel: the ending is so overwrought I had to read it twice to make sure I understood what was going on; the main first-person character's pregnancy (revealed very near the beginning of the book, so this is not a spoiler) is never convincingly portrayed, even to a male reader, and I imagine will ring even less true to a female reader; the 'romance' that develops between Roxy and a Greek local also scores low on believability. Despite these weaknesses the book can be recommended as a riveting read, about a 17-year-old who travels to Greece to discover the truth about her ancestry from her eccentric Scottish grandfather. The author's background is in the film world -mainly as a cinematographer, but he has written screenplays as well. And this is one of those books that reads very cinematically, which is why the thinness of the characterisation, including Roxy herself, would be perfectly OK if the plot were ever filmed - and I can see it being made into a very diverting 100 minute foreign location cine drama, with several cameo roles for older actors, and opportunities for exotic flashbacks. Reece writes excellently. His sentences roll smoothly, and it was only at the very end that I had to stop and re-read, as described above.


The Heart And The Bottle



Oliver Jeffers
HarperCollins
9780007182305
March 2010
Top marks to HarperCollins for the way they have designed and produced this fine work of art (guided by the artist himself, no doubt). Jeffers is exactly that, an artist who works in many formats, picture books being just one of them. A visit to his website - www.oliverjeffers.com - is recommended.

As for this particular title, I believe I love every single thing about it, from the shade of yellow on the book jacket, to the hand-written author/illustrator name, to the charming opening endpaper drawings, to the opening spread with its high horizon, wide treetrunked landscape with thinly growing flowers, a man with a walking-stick looking on as a young girl bends inquisitively towards the flower in the foreground... all the way though to the final endpapers and their biology-lesson-style drawings of a human heart.

This is an impressively moving story about the loss of childhood wonder and its eventual rediscovery. We see the girl, never named, taking delight in all she encounters, until one day she comes upon an emblematically empty chair. Suddenly her whole world becomes empty and heartless. She shuts her heart away in a bottle, lives safely but unfeelingly in a humdrum world.

I like particularly the two pages that Jeffers creates to show us how hard it is for the girl to get her heart back. She is shown at a workshop table, all possible tools at hand, but none of them will smash the bottle and free the heart. She is shown atop a high brick wall, dropping the bottle from a great height, but it just bounces.

It takes another girl, as alive and full of wonder as she once was, to help her free the heart and put it back where it belongs. She ends the book sitting in the high-backed emblematic chair, reading, a pile of books at her side, and a big thought cloud rising above her, teeming with a splatter of differing images.

This is a very fine book, ready to be enjoyed on many different levels, by many diferent ages.



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Monster Day At Work



Sarah Dyer
Frances Lincoln
9781847800695
February 2010
Wonderfully amusing illustrations in this join-dad-at-work-day story. Rush hour has everyone skating to work in a double-page-spread that will have children lingering over each of the different scooters. The 'morning meeting' spread is fun too, with dad's arm around Monster and the table festooned with an assortment of memos, coffee cups and plates of biscuits and cakes. To be frank, not a lot happens during the rest of the day, so the trick to enjoying this picture book will be in savouring the pictures and improvising the telling. The ending teeters on a working-dad housewife-mum stereotype, perhaps not sufficiently compensated for by the irony of the final words, accompanying the picture of mum, broom in one arm, hoover in the other: "Who has it easy too."


Pretty Bad Things



c. j. skuse
Chicken House
9781906427252
March 2010
The proof copy of this first novel carried a recommendation by Kevin Brooks, which was enough to push it ahead of other reads. Make no mistake, this is a fabulous debut and if I fail to give it five stars it is only because of a couple of caveats. Skuse, female, writes with a lot of balls. The two main characters, Paisley and Beau, are brother-and-sister twins. At the start of the novel Paisley is receiving counselling at the Immaculate Conception Academy for Girls. The book is narrated by each character in their own voice (alternating a chapter at a time), and it has to be said that Paisley's chapters are by far the strongest. Paisley is the life and soul of this novel. She has the drive, the imagination, the guts, the energy, and the mouth. My word, does she have a mouth. Skuse makes that mouth utter lines of colourful confrontational dialogue that are an absolute joy. As a first novel Pretty Bad Things has no doubt received a good deal of editing. Like Lucy Christopher (another exciting debut author), Skuse is a graduate of Bath's creative writing MA, and the novel is the result of long gestation. The shame for me is that its narrative momentum dips slightly at that very crucial midway point in a novel. I would have to read it a second time to put my finger on precisely where the flagging occurs and where some ratcheting up or streamlining could have been beneficially applied. It's just a shame that after a scintillating opening, followed by a movie-worthy confrontation with a fortune-hungry grandmother, the pace starts to drift once brother and sister arrive in Las Vegas on their mission to be reunited with a father they haven't seen for more than a decade. When at last they devise a plan to get themselves noticed by staging a series of mall robberies, the momentum, and more importantly the character chemistry are re-established. Paisley is re-energised and the contrast between her and the more nervous, cautious Beau is well-handled. The novel's backstory (death of the mother when the children were three years old, father in prison etc.) is never wholly believable, but that does not materially matter. What matters is that Skuse has arrived on the scene with a voice that I for one will be longing to hook up with again.


The Biggest Kiss

Joanna Walsh & Judi Abbott
Simon & Schuster
9781847384362
January 2010
Joanna Walsh's verse text and Judi Abbot's [Giuditta Gaviraghi's) illustrations combine very satisfyingly in a book that will appeal to both very young children and, I suspect, smoochily sentimental adults looking for a Valentine gift that doesn't cost much more than a card.

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