Picture Book Perusal: Grandad’s Secret Giant

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Today I have a sumptuous feast for the eye with David Litchfield’s richly coloured Grandad’s Secret Giant, which we received from Murdoch Books via Allen & Unwin for review.  Here’s the blurb from Murdoch Books:

A GIANT story of belonging and friendship from David Litchfield, author of the prize winning The Bear and the Piano.

He has hands the size of tables, Grandad said, legs as long as drainpipes and feet as big as rowing boats. Do you know who I mean?

Yes, sighed Billy. The Secret Giant. But he’s not real!

Billy doesn’t believe his Grandad when he tells him there’s a giant living in his town, doing good deeds for everyone. He knows that a giant is too big to keep himself hidden. And why would he WANT to keep himself a secret? But as time goes on, Billy learns that some secrets are too BIG to stay secret for long…

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Grandad’s Secret Giant by David Litchfield.  Published by Allen & Unwin, 29th March 2017.  RRP:$21.99

Being a thrifty sort of gargoyle, I wouldn’t normally suggest that you run out and buy the hardback version of a book the moment it’s released, but I will make an exception in this case.  The reason you will want to get the hardback edition of Grandad’s Secret Giant is that that way, you will not miss out on the absolutely joyous experience of peeling back the marvelous dust jacket to uncover the luxurious, colourful, mesmerising image spread across the entire cover of this book.

The next thing you’ll want to do is get a load of the incredibly beautiful endpapers – the beginning one shrouded in blue and white shadows and a giant hiding, the final one infused with the warmth of early morning and the excitement and cosiness of making a new friend.

If  you haven’t been convinced by the preceding two paragraphs of high praise, do remember that we haven’t even got to the story yet.

Billy has grown tired of his Grandad’s tales of a giant who lives in their town and helps people out, even though they can’t see him – or scream and run away if they do.  He has made up his mind that he will not believe unless he sees the proof with his own eyes.  But will seeing the Giant bring out the best in Billy?

This is a delightful story of making mistakes and making things better, all wrapped up in a cosy grandparent-grandchild relationship.  The solution to Billy’s problem is heartwarming and creative and the story has an upbeat vibe about it that will give you a spring in your step for the rest of the day.

But those illustrations.

Oh, those illustrations!

I’m not sure whether its the medium or the particular colour palette, but the illustrations here are so vibrant and inviting that I couldn’t help poring over them for ages and wishing, just a little bit, that I could be sucked in to Billy’s world.  I was already familiar with Litchfield’s illustrative style from The Building Boy, but the page spreads in Grandad’s Secret Giant lend themselves even more perfectly to the story than in that previous book.

Little ones will love trying to spot the giant, who seems to blend in with his surroundings despite his inherent ability to stand out.  There is so much to see in the pictures the longer you look that this book will no doubt be brought out time and again before bedtime.

I realise I’m being a bit indulgent here, with three in the space of a fortnight, but because of the incredibly beguiling illustrations and the warmth of the story, I can’t help but name this a Top Book of 2017 pick!

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Until next time,

Bruce

Picture Book Perusal: Night Shift…

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Today’s offering is one of those rare picture books that is aimed at adults and delivered in an extraordinarily moving way.  Debi Gliori, most famous for her popular fantasy stories and kid-level picture books, has created an absorbing portrait of depression and hope in her new picture book Night Shift.  We received a copy from Allen & Unwin for review and here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

A groundbreaking picture book on depression with stunning illustrations.

With stunning black and white illustration and deceptively simple text, author and illustrator Debi Gliori examines how depression affects one’s whole outlook upon life, and shows that there can be an escape – it may not be easy to find, but it is there. Drawn from Debi’s own experiences and with a moving testimony at the end of the book explaining how depression has affected her and how she continues to cope, Debi hopes that by sharing her own experience she can help others who suffer from depression, and to find that subtle shift that will show the way out.

‘I have used dragons to represent depression. This is partly because of their legendary ability to turn a once fertile realm into a blackened, smoking ruin and partly because popular mythology shows them as monstrous opponents with a tendency to pick fights with smaller creatures. I’m not particularly brave or resourceful, and after so many years battling my beasts, I have to admit to a certain weariness, but I will arm-wrestle dragons for eternity if it means that I can help anyone going through a similar struggle.’

The first clue that this isn’t your average picture book comes from the cover and size of Night Shift.  At A5 size and with a rich-feeling cloth-bound cover, it’s obvious from the off that this isn’t necessarily a book a child might pick up.  Fans of fantasy will be drawn to the dragon on the front cover and will be rewarded throughout because Gliori has chosen to represent mental illness – in this case depression – through the medium of the dragon.

The story starts simply enough.  A woman is a bit tired, a bit stressed, has trouble sleeping.  She is followed around by a small dragon who, while maybe a bit annoying certainly isn’t immediately recognised as malignant in intention.  As the story continues however, the dragon gets larger, the woman’s reality more fragmented and fanciful and it seems like she couldn’t possibly find the tools to escape from the new landscape of fear and sadness in which she lives her life.

And then…a feather.

And hope.

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The monochromatic, graphite and charcoal illustrations throughout perfectly capture the sharp contrasts of depression and anxiety, as certain experiences stand out starkly while others blur around the edges.  In each vignette it is possible to see the small changes that eventually lead to a sense of being overwhelmed; in which some small thing has somehow taken over a life.  The text on each page is sparse, but the words skilfully chosen to reflect the common cliches that the depressed often hear from friends, family and therapists.

A brief afterword from the author describes her journey through depressive illness and her inspiration in creating the book.  Books like Night Shift are an important stepping stone on the way to making mental illness visible in the public eye, and something that is acceptable to talk about.  If you have ever experienced depression, or know someone who has, I would suggest seeking this book out.

Until next time,

Bruce

Picture Book Perusal: There is a Tribe of Kids…

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If you are as much a fan of wordplay and wordishness as we are here on the Shelf, you should definitely seek out a copy of Lane Smith’s There is a Tribe of Kids.  We were lucky enough to receive a review copy from PanMacmillan Australia, who are publishing the title here in April, and here is the blurb from Goodreads:

Did you ever want to waddle with a colony of penguins? Wriggle with an army of caterpillars? Or march with a troop of monkeys?

Lane Smith takes us on a colourful adventure through the natural world, following a child as he weaves through the jungle, dives under the ocean and soars into the sky. Along the way he makes friends and causes mischief with a dazzling array of creatures both large and small – but can he find a tribe of his own?

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It was the stark white-blue tones of the cover that caught my eye with this book, quickly followed by the absolutely adorable hairy goats and finally, the cheeky little protagonist hiding amongst the huddle.  I couldn’t begin to guess what the story might be about from the cover and the title, so it was with a little spark of delight that I opened the book to find out that not only was it about a tour through the little (and large) parts of the natural world, but also an homage to creative collective nouns.

The book begins with a small boy and the titular tribe of young goats and quickly moves on as the boy finds himself dropped, flopped and generally jostled from one group of animals to another.  He goes floating with a smack of jellyfish, crosses swords with a crash of rhinos and even follows a trail of shells to a surprise ending that will have fans of wordplay and synonym grinning from ear to ear.  My favourite page involved the boy mucking in with a turn of turtles, before getting bored with waiting for them to catch up and then falling asleep.

In each scene, the boy takes on some of the characteristics of the animal or environment.  He uses twigs as horns while with the kids, practices inching along with no hands among the caterpillars and snuggles in for the night on a bed of clams.  The illustrative style reminded me strongly of Chris Judge’s Lonely Beast series of picture books, with double page spreads cordoned off into smaller panels to illustrate multiple scenes on a single page.  The textured images perfectly suit the natural terrains that the boy encounters and the greens and browns alternating with whites and blues throughout give a thoroughly outdoorsy feel to the goings-on.

The illustrations here definitely bring the minimalist, repetitively formed text to life and elevate this book to one that deserves to be pored over again and again.  I can certainly see some mini-fleshlings being inspired to crawl like a caterpillar, climb like a kid or balance like a rock tower after flicking through this one a couple of times.

It’s for these reasons that I’m going to have to appoint There is a Tribe of Kids a TOP BOOK OF 2017 pick!

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Until next time,

Bruce

 

Picture Book Perusal: General Relativity for Babies…

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I’ve got one for the science buffs today with General Relativity for Babies by Chris Ferrie.  I requested this one from Netgalley for review on the logic that I, as an intelligent, adult gargoyle, should be able to understand a concept – even one as advanced as general relativity – when it is explained at a baby’s cognitive level.   Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

A brand-new board book series with simple explanations of complex ideas for your future genius!

It only takes a small spark to ignite a child’s mind! Written by an expert, General Relativity for Babies is a colorfully simple introduction to Einstein’s most famous theory. Babies (and grownups!) will learn all about black holes, gravitational waves, and more. With a tongue-in-cheek approach that adults will love, this installment of the Baby University board book series is the perfect way to introduce basic concepts to even the youngest scientists. After all, it’s never too early to become a quantum physicist!

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So, was my reasoning spurious?

Long story short: yes.

Yes it was.

I was unable to grasp complex scientific principles delivered at the cognitive level of a baby.  The first few pages were okay.  I was pretty confident with my grasp of things having more or less mass, and the ability of mass to warp space.

But when we got on to particles not being able to go where they please, I was lost.  It was all over.  Nevertheless, I persisted to the end of the book, picked up some basic information about black holes and subsequently consigned all that talk about particles taking the shortcut through warped mass to the black hole of my memory.

As far as baby-appeal goes however, this book is on the right track.  The illustrations are bright and consist of large shapes in contrasting colours.  The text is short.  The images are stark and perfect for babies at an early stage of development who like big shapes and simple images against solid background colours.  Science fans will get a kick out of reading this to their mini-lab-assistants-in-training.

Overall, this is a super fun idea for a series of board books and are a great way for parents to engage their mini-fleshlings in topics that set their scientific hearts aflutter.

Until next time,

Bruce

Picture Book Perusal: Two Titles That Deserve a Closer Look…

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This post should probably be a Reading Round-Up, but the two titles that I have for you today are worthy of a slightly more specific examination.  We received both from Allen & Unwin for review and there are some absolute delights here that drew the mini-fleshlings in and had them fully engaged in the reading experience.

Allow me to introduce to you Neon Leon, a chameleon with a slight camouflage-skills issue and a TOP BOOK OF 2017 PICK recipient from we Shelf Dwellers!

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Neon Leon by Jane Clarke & Britta Teckentrup.  Published by Allen & Unwin, February 2017.  RRP $19.99

Created by Jane Clarke & Britta Teckentrup, this delightful book is chock-full of subtle interactive prompts and colour bursts that will knock your socks off.  The picture above doesn’t really do the cover justice, because Neon Leon is most definitely an eye-burstingly bright pinky orange neon colour in the flesh, so to speak.  From the endpapers, that are so bright fluro they will make your ears bleed, to the hilarious incongruity of Leon sticking out like the proverbial sore thumb in various environments, this is a book that begs to be viewed again and again.

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I got a bizarre shiver of delight looking at each new habitat and appreciating how the illustrator has juxtaposed the stark stand-outedness of Leon with the skillful camouflage of his friends against beautifully textured backgrounds of leaves, rocks, sand and moonlight.  Aside from all the other interactive elements of the story (which I’ll get to in a minute), it would be great fun for mini-fleshlings to see if they can find all the non-Leon chameleons hiding in each page spread.

Now, about that interactivity!  This story isn’t your typical picture book story.  It is narrated in a style that truly involves the reader by asking questions and inviting readers to join in by guessing where the chameleons might be going or what they might be feeling.  There are also prompts for readers to say or do particular things at certain points in the story.  The youngest mini-fleshling in the dwelling, at three years old, absolutely LOVED whispering to Leon, “Don’t worry Leon, everything’s going to be okay” when instructed during a slightly sad point of the story and subsequently clapping and smiling with Leon as he finally finds what he is looking for. As well as being a fun read aloud between parents and mini-fleshlings, the interactivity of the reading experience makes this one a perfect choice for library or classroom storytime.

The final few pages will blow you away with the scale of the brightness in the illustrations and it’s almost impossible not to feel uplifted with such a whimsically charming ending coupled with the glorious colours.  We on the Shelf highly recommend Neon Leon as one of those rare and special picture book experiences.  In our opinion, it’s unmissable!

Another interactive book that has definitely piqued our interest is Town and Country: A Turnaround Book) illustrated by Craig Shuttlewood.  This innovative title is designed to be read both right side up and upside down, allowing youngsters to compare and contrast two different environments – in this case, the urban, town environment and the country.

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Town and Country (A Turnaround Book) by Craig Shuttlewood.  Published by Murdoch Books Australia, February 2017.  RRP: $19.99

 

The cover of this one basically sums up what you can expect from this book.  Look at the book one way, then flip it upside down and hey presto – a new scene emerges!  The book is designed a bit like a search-and-find tome, with each spread featuring a box with a selection of “town” or “country” things to find in each respective illustration.  In a clever twist, some things can be found in both the town and the country scenes, prompting discussion on how these particular things might be used (or, in the case of animals, be behaving) differently in each environment.  For instance, a rabbit in a country setting might be spotted frolicking in the woodlands, whereas the same rabbit in an urban setting might be seen inside a hutch.

The double spreads each have a different focus – occupations, trees and flowers, food, machinery and so on – so by the end of the book, readers will have absorbed a significant amount of non-verbal information about the two different environments.  The illustrations are absolutely adorable and there is plenty of humour to be found hidden in each image.

Initially, I began using the book as intended with the two mini-fleshlings, trying to find each specific image and discussing what was different about the two settings, but the elder mini-fleshling (six years old) quickly lost interest in that and we instead had a whale of a time poring over each image with the mini-fleshlings trying to find “themselves” in each picture.  Exchanges such as the following:

“You’re the busdriver!”

“No I’m not!”

“You’re abseiling from the helicopter”

“No I’m not!”

“YOU’RE THE ELEPHANT DOING A POO IN THE ZOO!”

“No, I’m NOT!”

“Yes you are!”

– pretty much sums up the engaging experience the mini-fleshlings had while poring over the illustrations in Town and Country.  We are all for picture books with innovative and interactive formats here on the Shelf and would definitely recommend this one to classroom teachers, librarians and anyone who has a need for picture books that combine information with fun.

Until next time,

Bruce

 

 

Picture Book Perusal: Skinny Brown Dog

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It’s high time I featured a book with hat-wearing animals and in the absence of a Jon Klassen classic, today I am bringing you new release picture book Skinny Brown Dog by Kimberly Willis Holt and Donald Saaf.   I have not read a picture book that has had such a brain-twisting effect on me for quite a while and I’m still giving my head a good scratch over the underlying themes and issues in this one as we speak.  We received a copy of Skinny Brown Dog from PanMacmillan Australia and here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

Benny the baker leads a simple life. He makes delicious cakes, cookies, and muffins, and keeps his customers well fed and happy. When a skinny brown dog shows up on Benny’s doorstep, nothing Benny says can convince him to go away. While Benny insists that the dog isn’t his, customers soon grow as fond of the skinny brown dog as they are of Benny’s yummy treats. The children even name him Brownie—the perfect name for a baker’s dog.

Benny starts to wonder what it might be like to have a dog of his own. But it’s not until Brownie comes to his rescue that Benny realizes a dog can make for a very good friend. Full of winning characters (and delicious treats!) from the award-winning Kimberly Willis Holt, this book celebrates a very special friendship.

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On first reading this story, I was immediately reminded of John Brown, Rose and the Midnight Cat, because there seems to be a similar underlying metaphorical suggestion going on here..but I’m not 100% sure what it is.

That appearances are reflective of our attitudes?

The life-changing magic of giving someone a chance?

The importance of following Workplace Health and Safety Guidelines for small business?

I just don’t know!

Happily, while there are obviously layers to peel back within this story, I suspect that the more nuanced of these will go over the heads of younger readers, who will instead end up focusing on the charming and delightful story of friendship and acceptance.

Benny the baker (a bear) is a kind and gentle soul and his bakery is a hub for the community.  When a skinny brown dog turns up outside his bakery, Benny tries, unsuccessfully, to gently move it on.  Of course, no one can resist the lure of puppy dog eyes – especially when said eyes look like chocolate chips – and the dog, who is eventually named Brownie, is taken to heart by the community.  Benny, however, remains unmoved on the point that a bakery is no place for a dog…until an accident happens and Benny does some re-evaluation of what and who is important.

The illustrations bear an endearingly old-fashioned tilt, and evoke the community feel of times gone by, when people visited individual shops to buy their necessary goods and shopkeepers and patrons knew each other by name.  The repeated refrains from Benny – “He’s not my dog!”- and Miss Patterson (an elephant) – “Yes, I can see that” – are suggestive of the knowledge that young readers will have already picked up; that the skinny brown dog is slowly but surely becoming part of Benny’s life.  The ending is no less heartwarming for its predictability and the author has done a wonderful job of allowing Benny (and the reader) ample time to commit to the course of action that he has been trying to put off.

And yet….underneath the simple story of friendship and acceptance is a whole subtext that begs for careful deconstruction by older readers.

The world of Skinny Brown Dog is populated by animals (most of which wear some kind of jaunty hat), and while the majority of these animals talk and take on human roles, the skinny brown dog, who is eventually named Brownie, does not.  Despite the fact that he wears a suit and bowler hat throughout, just like everyone else.

See what I mean about underlying metaphorical suggestion?  There are animals who are obviously meant to be people, but Brownie, who is also dressed as a person, like the other people-animals, is clearly meant to be an animal.

Except when he’s not.

Like when he hands a dropped purse back to Miss Patterson, using his paw, with a tip of his hat.  Or in the final few pages of the story when Brownie is pictured on his hind legs, whereas previously he has got around on all fours.  Is Benny’s acceptance of Brownie as a friend and companion the catalyst for Brownie’s self-confidence and self-worth, represented by his new, upright stance?  Perhaps now that Benny is really “seeing” Brownie, the carefully constructed facade of Brownie being something “other”, and “not like us” has fallen away.

This is certainly a “more than meets the eye” sort of picture book that can be enjoyed on more than one level.  Much like its unassuming cover, the story itself beckons the reader on into the subtext of the story, to discover and create meanings beyond outward appearances.

The shelf brands Skinny Brown Dog highly recommended reading!

Until next time,

Bruce

Picture Book Perusal: My Valley

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I’ve got a picture book translated from the original French for you today.  My Valley by celebrated French children’s author Claude Ponti is due to be published in English, translated by Alyson Waters, in March 2017.  We received a copy for review from the publisher via Netgalley and here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

In My Valley, Claude Ponti leads us on a journey through an enchanted world inhabited by “Touims” (tiny, adorable, monkey-like creatures), secret tree dwellings, flying buildings, and sad giants. Clever language and beautifully detailed maps of imaginary landscapes will delight children and adults alike. Ponti himself has said, “My stories are like fairytales, always situated in the marvelous, speaking to the interior life and emotions of children. That way each child can get what they want out of the images: the characters and dreams are their own.”

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Long-time readers of this blog will know that my relationship with French books translated into English is sketchy at best.  I’ve come across a few books in this category that I have thoroughly enjoyed, but for some reason, many others I haven’t.  Unfortunately, this was one of the latter.  It’s not a bad book by any means, just one in which I could not find a point of purchase from which to engage with the story.

The book is aimed at around about the 6 to 10 age group, with large pictures surrounded by short paragraphs of text.  There is no coherent overall story, per se, but rather a collection of related passages that take place within a magical, ethereal, woodlandish world.  The Valley is populated by Twims, little furry creatures that pass the time in various unlikely and whimsical ways, as well as giants and other fantastical creatures.  As there was no linear storyline in the book, I found it hard to stay interested in what was going on because it was episodic in nature, with new characters being introduced only to disappear when others arrive.

The illustrations didn’t do a lot for me, but they were undoubtedly the highlight of the book regardless.  The images take centre stage, covering page spreads or appearing beside blocks of text to give a bit of life to the story.

I’d have to say that this book just wasn’t my cup of tea – but that’s not to say it won’t be a hit with a mini-fleshling of your acquaintance, provided they have a good imagination and find joy in whimsical and original fantasy worlds.

Until next time,

Bruce