Book reviews at Christmas

November 16

Play by the Rules – or Play with the Rules?

Rules – love them, hate them – we know we can’t do without them. For children dealing with school routines, life must seem one whole round of rules to learn and abide by. So I thought we could do with a break. I’ve found a fabulous stack of subversive picture books which prove that some rules are made to be broken … None of these are Christmas-related (another rule broken – I always include Christmas books in the Christmas issue of Salad Days but haven’t seen new ones which have really caught my eye – I’ll remind you of some of my all-time favourites at the end). All, however, would make great presents.

For example, the gloriously silly You Must Bring a Hat by Simon Philip and Kate Hindley. There’s a party – a ‘fancy hat’ party at Wide Brim House, 32 Panama Avenue. The only hat to be found is on a monkey who won’t part with it. So the boy takes the monkey in the hat to the party. But, on arrival, there’s another stipulation – no hat-wearing monkeys are allowed in, unless they have a monocle. Boy and monkey accost a passing monocle-wearing badger (called Geoff). He comes too. New rule on arrival at the party. The doorman is under strict instructions “not to let any hat-and-monocle-wearing monkeys in if they are accompanied by a badger called Geoff … unless Geoff can play the piano.” And so it goes on, getting more and more delightfully absurd with wonderful bright illustrations to match. Pure subversive joy which will have you all giggling.

More rules in Oi Dog by Kes & Claire Gray and Jim Field. This is the sequel to Oi Frog, which I adored. In Oi Frog, Cat demanded that all creatures should sit on items with which they rhymed e.g. cats on mats, snails on pails, etc. Disaster struck when Dog tried to sit on Frog. Which is where Oi Dog begins. Dog is told to get off Frog. “But I like sitting on frogs” says Dog, “Frogs are all squishy and squashy and when you sit on them they go PLURPPPPPPPPPPP!”

Frog changes the rules – LOGS are for Dogs. And out comes a new stream of inventive seating arrangements – cats on gnats, crickets on tickets … I won’t spoil the fun by telling you the rest but the illustrations are hilarious and the climax is perfect. I can envisage whiling away long car journeys with word games based on this book (a new version of ‘The Quartermaster’s Stores’ for those who remember that).

More rules – and the freedom not to conform – can be found in Odd Dog Out by Rob Biddulph, about Odd Dog, a sausage dog who just wants to fit in. She travels the world to find her place in it but learns that sometimes it is better to stand out from the crowd. Odd Dog “dances to a different beat” – a colourful non-conformist one. The story ends with a lovely heart-warming conclusion, celebrating being different – and sausage dogs. Its award-winning author must really like drawing them as there are hundreds on the marvellously busy bright pages.

No rules in Willy and the Cloud by Anthony Browne but this is also about being different. Willy is pursued by a cloud which singles him out for glumness amongst a crowd of happy people in the park. He tries to hide away from it but the cloud only goes when he confronts it: “I’ve had enough! You’re nothing but a cloud made of tiny little droplets of water and air! Go away!”

This book could be an excellent conversation-opener for parents, teachers or carers dealing with children’s unhappy moments as it sends a strong message about standing up and facing one’s troubles.

In The Great Aaa-Ooo by Jenny Lambert an unidentified trouble is a fabulous excuse for a lot of noise and animal sounds, which young children will love. There’s a strange and scary sound in the forest and the animals are trying to track it down. “Which of you made that awful Aaa-Ooo?” “Not I,” Owl huffs, “I hoot and tu-whit tu-whoo.” “Nor I!” squeaks Mouse, “I scritch and scratch, squeak and chew, but never ever do I Aaa-Ooo!”. In delightful rhyming couplets the trail progresses and anxiety rises until the perpetrator is identified and “at long last, the rackety wood was peaceful once more.” But only briefly …

With lovely detailed touches in the strong, bold illustrations, this book will satisfy children on many levels. Parents and carers will get plenty of practice at hoots, honks, cracks, bellows and thwacks!

If it’s a Christmas theme you’re after, my absolute favourite is the Barefoot Books version of Babushka as retold by Sandra Horn and Sophie Fatus. It is shamefully out of print but if you can find a second-hand copy, buy it. Gorgeous illustrations and a lovely retelling of the story of the old lady who is far too intent on cleaning her house to notice the Christmas Story unfolding but is then caught up in a journey of her own to find the newborn baby. Also to be treasured is the intricate cut-paper version of Clement Moore’s The Night Before Christmas by Niroot Puttapipat. And my last classic is A Child’s Christmas in Wales by Dylan Thomas illustrated by Edward Ardizzone, whose sketched drawings capture the nostalgia in Thomas’s recollections. 

All these books (except Babushka) are on the shelves at Hart’s Books ( – or, if someone has beaten you to them, the lovely bookshop staff can order them for you, usually with next-day delivery. 

Jo Burch

Words in Walden Director


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