Monthly Archives: April 2016

Floss

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From her books you’d think that Kim Lewis was a born and bred English country girl so I was taken aback to learn that she’s actually from Montreal. But perhaps it’s not that surprising as Floss is all about the contrast between town and country and about moving to a new place.

At the beginning of the book Floss lives in a town with her owner and likes nothing more than spending all day playing football with the local children. Her owner’s son is a farmer and his dog is getting too old to work as a sheepdog – so Floss gets sent off to the country to take her place. The book has themes of the need to work versus the desire to play, the wrench of leaving behind the familiar and the struggle to be obedient.

Kim Lewis left Montreal to go to art school in London. She met her husband there and they moved up to Northumberland to farm. She started writing countryside tales when her son was young because she wanted stories that rural children could relate to and that city children could learn from. Her books capture the rugged beauty of the Northumberland countryside in detailed coloured pencil drawings full of movement and vitality.

When so often animal characters in books are the default ‘he’ it’s refreshing to have Floss as a ‘she’. A reminder that half the animal kingdom are also female. (Which you wouldn’t know from reading Dear Zoo where all eight of the animals sent are male. Which, you know, could just be a coincidence… I mean there is a 1/256 chance of it happening…)

My son is currently obsessed with dogs (or ‘duh’ as he calls them) so at time of writing this story is one of his favourites. And even with constant repetition Floss’s stoic hero(ine)ism doesn’t diminish.

Heroine rating: 4/5

Come away from the water, Shirley

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Shirley extols the value of imagination. A simple interpretation of the book is that it is a story about a little girl’s trip to the seaside and the imaginary games that she plays there. But scratch the surface and there is a lot more going on

As is often the case in John Burningham’s work there are two parallel narratives. On the left hand page we have the parents. They are drawn in washed-out pastel colours and sit on their deckchairs ignoring their child except to chastise her and relay commands. These are the kind of parents none of us want to become; those who jab and pester their children to become part of their own joyless world.

The other narrative, on the right hand page, is Shirley’s make-believe adventure. She is drawn in vivid colours rowing out to sea, fighting pirates, finding hidden treasure. She has escaped to a dream world. Although, who would want to insist that Shirley’s world is the make-believe and her parents’ is the ‘real’ one.

In a conventional picture-book Shirley’s adventure with the pirates would be at the forefront, with illustrations backing up the words of the narrative. Yet here Burningham places the adventure to one side and narrates it purely with his pictures. The only words we read are the tedious sentiments of Shirley’s parents. This is a book in which language, or certain forms of it, is subtly accused of disenchanting the world. It asks us, and particularly those of us with the responsibilities of parenthood, to think about what we do with words.

The most chilling line in the book is ‘Your father might have a game with you when he’s had a little rest’, as if play can only be at a prescribed time in a fashion that is recognisable to adults. Shirley reminds us to re-enchant the world.

Heroine rating: 5/5

Fairytales for Mr Barker

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Normally I wouldn’t refer to the achievements of an author’s parents in a review but Jessica Ahlberg is so directly continuing the family business that it is impossible not to refer to Janet and Allan Ahlberg. The heroine of Fairytales for Mr Barker travels through the worlds of fairytales as if they are movie sets (the colliding of characters much in the style of Each, Peach, Pear, Plum) where the next ‘set’ can be glimpsed through a cut away window (cf Peepo.) And Jessica’s illustrations do have a similar soft comfort to those of her mother’s.

Lucy is the heroine of Fairytales. She is strong headed and leads her fairytale companions out of danger of their respective nemeses (accompanied by her eponymous dog). It’s fast paced and fun and although it may not be very original it is very comforting. I also love how the story starts on the flyleaf before the ‘official’ beginning of a book as if the tale, and the heroine, are too important to be confined.

Heroine rating 4/5

Once There Were Giants

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I challenge any adult to read Giants without getting a little tearful. It is a celebration of the everyday domestic life which is so often overlooked in literature and yet is the joy of having a family.

The book follows a girl from when she is a baby on the rug (and the adults around her seem like giants), to crawling, walking, going to playgroup and then school, getting married and then finally having her own little girl. I was given this book when my son was only a few weeks old and it is a joy to read it with him as he grows up and in turn achieves these different milestones. (At point of writing he’s almost walking to the park to be ‘the one in the duck pond’, but not quite.)

What gives this book top heroine rating is that the main character isn’t perfect. Like all children she does naughty things (‘I called people names and upset the water on Millie Magee’) and she fights with her older brother (‘I got big and strong and punched my brother John.’)

Reading an interview with the author, Martin Waddell, it comes as no surprise that he grew up amongst interesting women (his mother and aunt were actresses) as the female characters in this story are right in the centre of the tale. He also says that he aims to write great dramas in a way which relates to pre-schoolers (Hamlet for four-year-olds) which explains why Giants has the feel of an epic family saga crammed into 24 pages.

Heroine rating 5/5