24 January 2012

Picture Book Review | The Gruffalo's Child by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler

The astounding success of The Gruffalo obviously begged a sequel, but how could its authors hope to follow up the picture book that effectively reinvented the fable without disappointing their expectant audience? The solution to their problem was the same as Mouse’s to his: with imagination and guile.

The story of The Gruffalo’s Child widens the canvas a little, Julia Donaldson introducing us to the Gruffalo’s "bored and brave” offspring who, one stormy night, ventures into the deep dark wood to track down the Big Bad Mouse whom her father speaks of with such awe. Happily, all the memorable characters that helped to make The Gruffalo such an enchanting tale are strewn along the Gruffalo’s Child’s path, however this time they are not used as empty-bellied antagonists, but instead unwitting allies of wily Mouse. Herein lies the brilliance of The Gruffalo’s Child - it is not a mere extension or reworking of The Gruffalo, but a clever inversion of it. Whereas the original followed Mouse through the wood, pedalling his propaganda in an attempt to avoid the jaws, beaks and sliced bread of the ravenous creatures that he encountered, this sequel follows the Gruffalo’s Child through the wood as she seeks to unstitch what she suspects is Mouse’s tapestry of lies, only to fall prey to his trickery herself, and thus suffer her father’s fate.

Axel Scheffler’s artwork is also peerless once more; a charismatic fusion of cute cartoon and fluff-veiled menace. Given this story’s nocturnal setting, Scheffler favours a darker colour palette here, imbuing the tale with a more ominous atmosphere that in some ways makes it even more effective than the original.

Indeed, The Gruffalo’s Child is The Empire Strikes Back of picture book sequels. If her animated responses are anything to go by, my daughter couldn’t have been any more enamoured with the literary component of her first Christmas’s haul - and, particularly as I’m the one on reading duty most nights, nor could I.

23 January 2012

Picture Book Review | The Troll by Julia Donaldson and David Roberts

At a first glance The Troll has all the makings of a childrens classic. Indeed, a tale that throws together a troll and some pirates with Gruffalo author Julia Donaldson at the helm certainly promises much. Unfortunately, for us, it didnt quite live up to that promise.

The most outstanding aspect of The Troll is probably its complexity. In a departure from the format of her most renowned works, and indeed from the format of most childrens picture books, here the author ambitiously weaves together two discrete narrative threads. We follow the eponymous Troll as he stomps about looking for goats to eat, and the pirates as they sail about looking for treasure to horde. Eventually, their paths cross and the two plot threads are resolved in concert, and not without a gratifying amount of irony. However, whilst this approach offers the story a lot more colour than would have otherwise been the case, its at the expense its pace. Whereas most Donaldson tales glide along at breakneck speed, often carried by gentle rhyme, The Troll lumbers slowly towards its crescendo through fairly traditional prose, demanding patience of its young readers; patience that they might not have.

Fortunately the story is buoyed by David Roberts flamboyant artwork. His monobrow Troll is especially effective; I love the final illustration in which the reader can see the characters rueful fate reflected in his eyes. Roberts also does a splendid job of highlighting the division of the plot by using bland, suitably grumpy colours for the Trolls segments in marked contrast to the vibrant hues of the pirates thread. Its enough to give Axel Scheffler a run for his money.

All told The Troll is a venturesomebook thats aimed a peg or two higher than most of Donaldsons works, and as a result it struggles to sate the same appetites. Im sure that it will appeal to readers who are ready to graduate from the likes of The Gruffalo onto longer, more structurally complicated tales, but even they might find it lacking the same sense of magic.

20 January 2012

Picture Book Review | Six Dinner Sid by Inga Moore

Six Dinner Sid has become a firm favourite in our household in recent months. Doing exactly what it says on the tin, Inga Moores tale tells of cunning cat who inveigles his way into the affections of six different households on Aristotle Street so that he can enjoy six different dinners each day. So keen on his grub is Sid, in fact, that hes prepared to assume six different names and six different personalities to ensure that his rapacious hunger is sated.

Much to poor Sids chagrin though, six different consultations with the same vet on the same day cause his delicate web of lies to come unravelled, and his six owners conspire to ensure that, going forward, he will have but one dinner a day (which is a bit harsh in my view; most cats need at least three square meals per day. Presumably Sid has a little excess weight to shift, though I dont think that this is immediately apparent from either the text or the illustrations). With apposite feline disgust, Sid promptly abandons the blinkered hermits of Aristotle Street and is adopted by the friendly folk of Pythagoras Place who, because hes frank with them about his gluttony from the start and / or theyre all pally with each other, are prepared to indulge his voracious appetite.

Im certain that theres a moral in here somewhere, though whether it‘Its fine to be a glutton, provided that youre open about it or ‘Talk to your neighbours, lest you be deceived by a Machiavellian moggy’, Im not sure. Fortunately such subtleties will be lost on most of this books intended audience, as they will be far too wrapped up in loveable Sids amusing antics to try and measure the authors views on deceit, greed and apathy - my daughter certainly is.

19 January 2012

Picture Book Review | The Story of the Little Mole Who Knew it Was None of His Business by by Werner Holzwarth and Wolf Erlbruch

The Story of the Little Mole Who Knew it Was None of His Business is a far grosser offering than most would initially infer from the title. This picture book houses not a cute little tale about a loveable mole who, despite knowing its none of his business, pokes his nose in anyway, but a twisted tale of farmyard revenge. It is, in a word, brilliant; in ten, its probably the best childrens picture book of all time.

The premise is simple: a mole wakes up with a turd festering on his head (the titular business). As its clearly not his business, the enraged mole subjects a series of animals to the most vile form of interrogation - he makes them take a dump for him, to rule them out of the running as it were. Its Cinderella and the slipper all over again, only backwards, and with poo. From any childs perspective, thats got to be a winner.

Eventually, the mole enlists the help of a pair of flies to identify the culprit for him, and then the book concludes with a resplendently puerile act of tit-for-tat retaliation that would make even the most morally vacant of childrens authors cringe.

However, The Story of the Little Mole Who Knew it Was None of His Business isnt all faecal fun and games - theres a strong argument to say that its educational too. After all, there cant be that many books on the market that will teach your child how to differentiate between various types of animal excrement.

Picture Book Review | Burglar Bill by Janet and Allan Ahlberg

Whilst my wife was pregnant, we decided to purchase a selection of our favourite childhood books to read to the bump. Both of us recalled the works of Janet and Allan Ahlberg with great fondness and so, along with Funnybones, we decided to make Burglar Bill one of our first purchases. As a child I was fortunate enough to have both the picture book version of this story and an audio book read by Bernard Cribbins, and for a long time both ranked amongst my favourite things - more often than not in tandem. When you hear this sound, turn the page...

Far from being a tale that glamourises burglary, Burglar Bill is a gentle and amusing tale about a criminals redemption; one that only gets funnier as you get older. I dont ever recall asking my parents why Bill pilfers only the most ludicrous of items - who steals used toothbrushes and big brown boxes with little holes in them? - or laughing when Burglar Betty doesnt recognise Burglar Bill until he puts his burgling mask on, yet every time we read the story to our baby daughter, we seem to discover some new absurd aspect that makes us smile too.

For someone who starts out the tale as a swarthy criminal, Burglar Bill makes for a surprisingly genial protagonist. Grossly negligent and flighty widow lady Burglar Betty is a little harder to warm to - by her own admission, shes been a terrible woman - but she more than makes up for her misdemeanours by helping Burglar Bill to see the error of his ways. Bills epiphany does feel rather sudden though, and the grown-up in me cant help but wonder how he and Betty could have returned everything that theyd half-inched when the preponderance of their ill-gotten gains were consumables. If a reformed burglar showed up on my doorstep proffering a half-eaten packet of out of date arrowroot biscuits and a bedraggled toothbrush, Id say keep em - and then promptly call the fuzz.

Fortunately such wry cynicism has yet to infect my daughter, and every time I read Burglar Bill to her, her face lights up - and Im not even a patch on Bernard Cribbins.

18 January 2012

Picture Book Review | Tabby McTat by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler

Although shes a little too young to take appreciate its stomping narrative, my baby daughter is an evident fan of The Gruffalo and its sequel, both of which prompt a flood of smiles and giggles whenever theyre performed at bedtime. As my wife and I are both cat lovers, when we spotted another Julia Donaldson / Axel Scheffler collaboration bearing the image of a well-dressed Scots cat on its cover, we just couldnt resist.

And if anything, Tabby McTat is a more noteworthy book than even The Gruffalo. Whilst they dont give me an excuse to put on any silly voices (Im very proud of my Snake, especially), when read aloud Donaldsons words are rhythmic and soothing - ideal for the final story of the night. More importantly though, whereas The Gruffalo is a first-rate romp that champions brains over brawn, Tabby McTat is an affecting little tale that is strewn with subtext.

When a quirk of fate separates a busker from his beloved feline, Tabby is forced to carve out a new life for himself as a husband and father - gone are the heady days of singing for his supper and having adventures with his tuneful friend. When Tabby wakes up each morning with a mew, desperately missing the absent musician, its enough to stir even the most stoic of adult readers. But when chance conspires to reunite Tabby and his former companion, readers must confront the most difficult of home truths: we must all grow up, and we must all move on... and deep down, we probably want to.

An outstanding picture book that stands up to nightly repetition for months on end, Tabby McTat is a must for any young reader’s (or listeners) library.

Picture Book Review | Freddie and the Fairy by Julia Donaldson and Karen George

Julia Donaldson is fast becoming one of my daughters favourite authors, and she isnt even old enough to speak yet. Of all those whose work is read to her at bedtime, Donaldsons invariably provokes the most smiles and chuckles. It wont be long though before shes able to make sense of the pleasing sounds that shes hearing, and when she does, its stories like this one that her mother and I want her to absorb, and hopefully take to heart.

Short and sweet, Freddie and the Fairy tells of a hearing-impaired fairy, Bessie-Belle, who struggles to grant the wishes of the eponymous Freddie because hes constantly mumbling; covering his mouth; or even turning away when hes telling her what he wants. At first, the effect is comic, with Freddie being gifted a net instead of a pet; a bat instead of a cat; a louse instead of a mouse; and so on. However, such a string of failures saddens Bessie-Belle, and so it falls to the Fairy Queen and her Three Golden Rules to teach the well-meaning but insensitive protagonist that a little compassion and consideration is to everyones benefit - especially his. Or at least, nearly.

Intriguingly specific and just on the right side of preachy, Freddie and the Fairy is an enchanting little morality tale that holds its own against some of the authors more substantive, better-known works.