UKMGExtravaganza…coming soon. Very soon.

UKMGExtravaganza October 2015 Nottingham

It’s only a couple of days now until UKMGExtravaganza in Nottingham. Thirty-five  – yes, 35 – UK middle grade authors all in one place, perhaps the most ever seen in captivity! It follows on from UKYAX last week and is organised by the amazing Kerry Drewery, Emma Pass and Jo Cotterill. Authors will be talking, mingling, signing books, and eating cake.

I will be in Nottingham Central Library on Saturday afternoon, waving my books about, and giving away the gorgeous bookmarks for my new title, Nancy Parker’s Diary of Detection, which isn’t actually out until next year.

Julia Lee's books UKMGExtravaganza 2015

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Where’s Teddy? Bedtime angst addressed…

A Board Book Every Week: No. 22

No Bed Without Ted by Nicola Smee, Bloomsbury board book

No Bed Without Ted by Nicola Smee (Bloomsbury 2007)

 

A brilliant lift-the-flaps book written and illustrated by Nicola Smee, combining hide-and-seek, bedtime anxieties, and some delightfully helpful pets.

The little girl at the heart of this story is all ready for bed but can’t go until her teddy is found – but where is it? Cupboards, drawers and tablecloths are lifted to reveal a growing number of animals, but no Ted. I particularly like the flap which shows Grandpa to be sitting on a bag full of – could they be? – Werthers Originals. No Bed Without Ted by Nicola Smee, Bloomsbury board book

It turns out that Ted has been washed and is outside on the washing line – another anxiety about favourite huggies and suckies and soft toys. I recall one of my children kneeling before the washing machine, paws pressed to the glass door, while his cuddly quilt swished round inside. It had been cut in two and I was hoping he wouldn’t notice when the spare half was in for a much-needed wash.

Happy endings here with everyone snuggled up to sleep, and as the blurb says ‘loads for children to investigate, spot and count’. The little mice asleep in a pair of slippers are a lovely touch.

No Bed Without Ted by Nicola Smee, Bloomsbury Board BookReally simple text, with a rhyme on the short 4-line pages, makes for a manageable and familiar storyline, and the possibility of talking about emotions with a toddler. One flap shows our heroine with a tear on her cheek.

The colours are cheery and bright without being lurid. It reminds me of Where’s Spot?, but is a bit more sophisticated.

Bound to be a favourite!

 

Babies love babies

A Board Book Every Week: No. 21

The Big Book of Beautiful Babies Board Book by David Ellwand

The Big Book of Beautiful Babies Board Book by David Ellwand

(Ragged Bears Publishing 1999)

 

This was a second-hand find which hits the spot in several ways:

  • Babies are fascinated by faces and fascinated by other babies. At the back is a big mirror page to see themselves in.
  • The black-and-white format might make it attractive to the very young who respond to monochrome images.

The Big Book of Beautiful Babies Board Book by David EllwandMostly just two words per page and a rhyme, ‘Baby happy…Baby sad’, it’s a simple book of opposites. Messy/neat, quiet/loud, bottom/top and so on, some more meaningful to tinies than others – but that’s always the case with opposites books, I find.

  • The photographs are copyrighted 1995 and I feel it comes from a happily less gender-stereotyped era than now. The babies come in all shapes, races and sizes but it’s impossible to tell from clothes and hair what sex they are. No flowery headbands on baldies, no frills or car motifs, and of course no colour to give any clue.

It is a nice size, sturdy, and the shiny pages will wipe clean easily enough. The Big Book of Beautiful Babies by David Ellwand

Unlike this little one!

Dear Zoo without the frills…

A Board Book Every Week: No. 20

 Dear Zoo Animal Shapes board book by Rod Campbell - Macmillan Childrens Books

Dear Zoo Animal Shapes by Rod Campbell

(Macmillan Children’s Books 2012)

 

This is a nice sturdy board book version of the famous old favourite. I like it for babies because it simplifies the original (pretty simple) text down to the name of the animal and why it isn’t right e.g.

‘Giraffe … Too tall’

‘Monkey…. Too naughty’

Dear Zoo Animal Shapes by Rod Campbell

We do lose some of the aspects that make Dear Zoo such an endearing classic – the fresh white space on the page, the exciting packages the animals come in, and the refrain of repeated ‘So they sent me a … I sent him back’. The build-up of excitement isn’t so great, but there’s a big bright animal on every page and a description to go with it that prompts exaggerated sounds, faces and gestures. For babies at the stage of flipping back and forth through the pages rather than following a story this is quite enough.

But that leads me to another plus of Dear Zoo Animal Shapes – because the words are pared back none of the animals is a ‘he’. Or a ‘she’ or an ‘it’. As has been pointed out before, every animal in the original is male for absolutely no reason whatsoever except that it’s the habit of writers and readers* to depict without thinking a default all-male world. Here you can choose, swap it about, or not bother at all.

Dear Zoo Animal Shapes board book by Rod Campbell

Of course, we end up with the perfect pet!

*I still find myself doing this, calling animals ‘he’ unless it’s dead obvious – dresses, names – that they aren’t. Yet in the real world, half of all animals are female even though they don’t wear dresses, and they tend to keep their names a secret.

Arf! and Wow! A board book every week – or two

Computer problems meant that I couldn’t post for a couple of weeks, so here’s two for the price of one…

A Board Book Every Week: 18 and 19

Wow! said the owl by Tim Hopgood, Macmillan Children's Books

Wow! Said the Owl by Tim Hopgood (Macmillan Children’s Books 2012)

I know parents who are very very tired of reading the line ‘Wow! said the owl’, but come on, guys, it only turns up seven times in the book, not on every page.

This book isn’t perfect for under-ones: it’s another example of a large-format picture book (published 2009) turned into a board book, and Booktrust give it an interest age of 2+ . The text is not that gripping for real tinies, with some long complex sentences and a lot of words way beyond their comprehension. There’s no rhyme or rhythm to help, either. But I’ve chosen it because…

‘Wow!’ was just about what I said when I first saw it on the bookshop table. It has real eye-appeal.

It is gorgeous! Illustrations and colours to make your mouth water – a beautiful mix of line and wash and collage. The night-time pages are exquisite. I love the idea of exposing tiny children to a wide and wonderful world of images and styles.

The curious little owl is a female lead character – hurrah!Wow! said the owl by Tim Hopgood

She looks like an owl, not a ‘girl owl’. She has a really appealing face, with big owl eyes, but not a girly eyelash in sight!

There are lots of colours – and a rainbow – and a colour palette at the end to recap the colours seen.

The owl’s there to spot and point to on every double-page spread except for one, where you’ll have to settle for butterflies instead.

Any you do get to chant ‘Wow! said the owl’ over and over. We might not like the repetition but babies love it and learn best from it.

Can You Say It Too? Arf! Arf! by Sebastien Braun (Nosy Crow 2015)

Can you say it too? Arf! Arf! by Sebastien Braun, Nosy Crow Books

Now this is age-appropriate. Billed as ‘With BIG flaps to lift’, it’s simple, tough and fun, and the latest in a range of animal noise books from Nosy Crow. It has just five spreads, beautifully bright and sturdy, where different animals are hiding behind rocks, sandcastles and beach-balls.

I’m lucky enough to live at the seaside and I love seaside books. Seagulls, jellyfish and crabs are commonplace – sand not so much, on this stony bit of the south coast! And we would be very lucky if we were to spot seals, puffins or dolphins, though I live in eternal hope. But I like books that reflect some of a child’s own experience; they usually find this much more thrilling than even an exciting but unfamiliar setting. If this goes down a treat, we’ll be getting more ‘Can you say it too?’ books.

On that point, the nice thing about this book is that inside it doesn’t prompt the adult to demand, ‘Can you say it?’ Yes, lots of children love coming up with the right sound if they know it, but equally the pressure can be a real turn-off to any child who’s not there yet. There’s just the surprise picture and the noise to join in with.

Anyone up for a dolphin impression? Eeek! Eeek!

Anti-romantic romantics

The Town In Bloom by Dodie Smith

The Town In Bloom – Dodie Smith (1965)

 

I never got round to reading I Capture The CastleDodie Smith’s much-loved coming-of-age novel – until I’d been of age for many years. It was on my bookshelf, I’d even opened it a few times, but somehow was never in the mood for a story that began with the famous first line: ‘I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.’

When I did get round to reading it properly, like many others I fell in love – with the book, the setting, with its 17-year-old narrator Cassandra Mortmain.

So I was delighted to find another Dodie Smith novel with a similarly young protagonist, The Town In Bloom. Not because I was looking for one, but because this reissue presented itself to me, on face-out display in my local library. That is the beauty of libraries – they give you gifts you didn’t even know you wanted. (The same with proper bookshops.)

Expecting the same sort of enchanting comfort read, I was, in a way, disappointed. It has a charmingly wayward heroine, nicknamed Mouse, and wonderful detail that makes her 1920s London come alive: the residential Club for ladies, the ‘brown dinners’, the penny-pinching, and the clothes! The bulk of the plot concerns Mouse’s adventures when she arrives in London, aged 18, hoping to make a career in the theatre. Despite being young, diminutive and provincial, Mouse is far from mousey. Brought up by a very forward-thinking aunt, she confounds many of our received ideas about just-post-World War I attitudes and morals. She meets three other young women inventing their own independent lives and the four become friends. So far, so good. But once Mouse falls in love things change.

As a (failed) actress and then successful playwright Dodie Smith was very familiar with this world. It’s a long way – in tone, at least – from the seedy theatre milieu Jean Rhys knew and wrote about, but it’s still not exactly a romp. All-too-adult compromise, subterfuge and manipulations abound.  There’s not much of the withheld – and then delivered – gratification for the reader that makes a romantic book, of whatever quality, satisfying to its reader. This is different, more realistic, anti-romantic in many ways. Independent young women don’t live fairy-tale lives after all.

I Capture The Castle may be shelved as a YA book these days, but I can’t see The Town In Bloom pleasing a similar readership. For one thing, the love interest. The men the four girls get involved with – all substantially older than them – are really not appealing, at least not to modern teens (I hope!) A philandering actor-manager, a career clergyman, a boring-but-decent chap – they’re thinly written and unsurprising. They’re pretty much all rotters, too. Another I’d pinned my hopes on only disappoints (as so often in real life, dear reader).

The second problem lies in the structure of the novel. Most of it revolves around Mouse’s first mad year in London, book-ended by two sections set in a later period, looking back. Three of the friends meet at five-year intervals (there’s a mystery with Zelle, the fourth). Looking back is fine – but how far? It turns out to be 45 years, which is huge stretch. Problematically, the women don’t seem to have changed much or feel like women in their late 60s – and in the 1960s, sixty wasn’t “the new forty”, that’s for sure. I can’t imagine my teenage self identifying with them and the paths their lives have taken.

But as a grown up reader I found this a fascinating if slightly unexpected period novel.

Dinosaurs roar for boys – and girls

Week-by-week I’m building a library of stimulating and diverse books for a baby…

A Board Book Every Week: No 17

Image result for dinosaur roar

Dinosaur Roar! by Paul Stickland & Henrietta Stickland (Doubleday 2015)

 

There’s a weird sort of gender apartheid amongst animals that seems to have sprung up since my own kids were little. You see it if you look at children’s tee shirts, sleepsuits and socks, birthday cards, even baby muslins. Manufacturers, designers and marketers have decided that only large, snappy, vibrant and possibly violent animals are of interest to boys, and only soft, fluffy, pale-coloured and supposedly amenable animals are suitable for girls.

Creatures in the middle of this silly spectrum create a few problems. Do children’swear companies not know that a single sweet bunny-rabbit can ravage an allotment? Badgers seem to be for boys: why? Is it that assertively stripy face, or the big digging paws? Butterflies are deemed girly, but where are we on moths? And the jury’s out on giraffes.

It’s as if no boy ever hugged a kitten, or no tiger ever came to tea with a little girl!

As for dinosaurs, they’re definitely seen as male territory, though there must be some boys who aren’t that interested.

But what’s not to love about a dinosaur for any child? (Or grown-up!) Claws, spikes, scales, tails, big teeth, tiny brains. Roaring about the landscape tearing up trees like giant house-plants. So I’m including Dinosaur Roar! here to balance out the fluffy bunnies, and for dinosaur-loving girls (and boys) everywhere.

First published in 1994 in larger paperback format, this is basically an ‘opposites’ book. Every page has a different adjective for a dinosaur – fast, slow, above, below, short, long, weak, strong. The occasional word isn’t very useful for tinies – meek, anyone? – because it is wanted for the rhyme. The dinosaurs here come in crazy colours and contrasting sizes. They have wonderful expressions. Even the fierce one looks as if he’s having a laugh. Their small eyes make them all look a bit intellectually-challenged. The two vivid spreads at the end of the book with dinosaurs, both carnivores and herbivores, eating lunch and making horrible noises, are great fun. And let us revisit all the different ones, and find our favourites again.

The book is published in association with the Natural History Museum and a percentage of the royalties is donated to this much-loved institution.

Sanguine spider spout situation

A Board Book Every Week: No 16

Incy Wincy Spider - Amazing baby Books (Templar Publishing)

Incy Wincy Spider – Amazing Baby Books (Templar Publishing 2015)

 

We might not be very fond of spiders in real life, but in children’s stories and nursery rhymes it’s quite another matter. Incy Wincy Spider has long been a favourite, with its simple story, easy gestures and virtually one-syllable vocabulary. Again, in real life we say drainpipe instead of water spout, but that doesn’t seem to matter. Sun, rain, up, down – it’s nice clear stuff, and Incy’s jolly pragmatism chimes well with little ones who are constantly falling over and getting up again. Incy Wincy – you are role model.

Incy Wincy Spider - Amazing Baby BooksThis Amazing Baby version is great. The text appears on the left-hand page, with a bright picture opposite, each with textured section – including sparkly textured raindrops (my favourite!)  The sun page is sunny yellows, the rain page is blue and grey. There are dots, checks, zigzags and spirals galore and many of the images have a thick black outline, the patterns and contrasts making this book appeal to small babies as well as older ones. The spider is glittery green, textured, and always cheerful.Incy Wincy Spider - Amazing Baby Books

The only thing I wished they had managed to include – texture on the spider web.

So – simple, effective and fun.

And I’ve just realised: Incy Wincy is neither a boy or a girl. So if it floats your boat, you could refer to our sanguine spider as a ‘she’.

Incy Wincy Spider - Amazing Baby Books

Picture book blogger Library Mice has recently written about another Amazing Baby book here.

 

Oh, I do love to be beside the seaside…

A Board Book Every Week: No 15

(Or almost every week…)

 

Deep Deep Sea by Frann Preston-Gannon (Pavilion Children's Books)

Deep Deep Sea by Frann Preston-Gannon (Pavilion Children’s Books 2014)

 

Being lucky enough to live near the sea – and having been obsessed with the seaside all my life – I like to collect sea-themed books. Illustrated books make this project even more fun. So I’ve tried to find some baby board books that feature seaside stuff that will become familiar to our baby mermaid and here is the first one.

The gorgeous Deep Deep Sea is essentially a simple colour and counting book, with a gentle palette of Deep Deep Sea by Frann Preston-Gannon (Pavilion Children's Books) sea colours – quite unusual in baby books. That may make it less than high-contrast, but there are plenty of bright beady eyes to find on the sea creatures. Okay, I concede that whales, green turtles and seahorses don’t turn up every day on the beach. And I’ve been on dolphin spotting trips and never seen a blooming one! But I live in hope.

Frann Preston-Gannon makes lovely illustrated books: subtle and mainly subdued colours, flattish images, but rich in texture. There’s something slightly poignant about it all. I definitely want more.

One aspect that appealed to me about this book is that after reaching ‘5 red starfish’ it gives up on subsequent tougher numbers and leaps straight to the exciting ‘100 colourful fish’. I haven’t counted them all. There had better be one hundred – but I’ll leave that to busy little fingers a few years down the line.

 

 

Brighton Definitely Rocks Books

Children's Laureate Chris Riddell's sketch of children's author Julia Lee at Brighton Rocks Books

I just had to post this sketch of me reading at the Brighton Rocks Books event at the Jubilee Library in Brighton last weekend.

I knew that the new Children’s Laureate, Chris Riddell, was going to kick off events for the Summer Reading Challenge – but I didn’t know that he would stay and join in with our Middle Grade Author Panel and draw us in action!