Book Reviews for Autumn and Christmas

October 18

Late Autumn Adventures for Christmas

I know that this is supposed to be the Salad Days Christmas issue, but I haven’t seen any really striking Christmas picture books yet. Instead, I have found a stock of far more interesting Autumn books to review. On the basis that we almost never have snow at Christmas, I’m sticking to my theme and showcasing books which will relate much better to the likely miserably dull conditions outside. 

So, I give you On A Magical Do-Nothing Day by Beatrice Alemagna. In glorious autumnal colours, this picture book recounts the day in which a little girl is sent outside to play in the wind and the rain instead of lying on the sofa destroying Martians on her Game Boy. She accidentally drops the Game Boy in a river (I hear parents silently cheering), and, in spite of herself, discovers the exhilaration of the storm – snails, the damp smell of mushrooms, the feel of all the seeds, kernels, grains and roots in the woodland soil, and the power of the wind tumbling her down a hill. As the sun comes out, she drinks the raindrops dripping off a branch, she talks to a bird, and wonders why she has never done these things before. The ending is perfectly unsanctimonious – there’s no ‘I told you so’ – but just warm pleasure. I’d love to think that this will inspire small children to tiny adventures.

Equally glorious and equally autumnal is Sam Usher’s Storm in which a small boy and his grandfather decide it is perfect kite-flying weather. “Grandad! We can do kicking up the leaves, swooping and flying and leaning in the wind.”. First, they have to find the kite. Their search turns up all sorts of other items which conjure memories of other small treasured adventures spent together: ‘We looked in the study. I said, “Remember when you let me post that important letter?”’. Eventually, they find the kite and have a joyful time in the park, flying home to safety as the storm breaks. 

Sam Usher has written a series of similar books celebrating the adventures to be had not far from home when the weather changes everything – each of Rain, Sun and Snow is a gorgeous evocation of special times spent together.

Still on the theme of outdoors, but when the weather really is too difficult, slightly older children will enjoy poring over Urban Jungle by Vicky Woodgate, a big non-fiction picture book in lovely autumn colours which describes the animals that live in cities across the world. There are good maps and plenty to look at on each double-page spread with just enough sensible information (and not just ‘fun facts’) to satisfy but not overwhelm the audience. I particularly like the fact that the author includes cities which may be unfamiliar to children – Gabarone, Wellington, Krakow, Addis Ababa, for example – and a surprising number of different species finding a way of life in each. I can see this book as a jumping-off point for lots of other research – and perhaps an unexpected enlivening of trips into town. For example, who knew there was a wildlife reserve behind King’s Cross station where kingfishers can be spotted? Maybe a small project could be conducted to survey wildlife in a child’s own urban area …?

If you’re looking closely at urban wildlife, who better to illustrate it than James Mayhew, one of my favourite author-illustrators. I couldn’t let this review go by without mentioning his new collaboration with BBC broadcaster Zeb Soanes, telling the story of Gaspard the Fox – based on a real fox which has taken up residence in Zeb Soanes’ north London garden. This is a lovely, humorous celebration of the relationship between urban foxes and the humans and other animals they share the city with. Gaspard is already a social media celebrity with his own Twitter feed (and over 5,000 followers!), and website (www.gaspardthefox.com).

If the sun does not shine and it is too wet to play and the Cat in the Hat hasn't arrived, children could do worse than spend time with another lovely new non-fiction picture book, One Day, So Many Ways by Laura Hall and Loris Lora. With irresistibly retro illustrations, the book recounts a day in the life of children in over 40 places around the world, introducing children to the huge variety in customs and cultures. At breakfast, for example, Gina and Luis in the Amazon rainforest in Peru will eat ‘tacacho, which is a roasted banana with chorizo sausage’ while Hieu and Minh in Ho Chi Min City ‘slurp pho … a meaty soup with rice noodles and spices like ginger, chilli and star anise’. Not only are the differences celebrated but also the recognition that children all round the world do many of the same things: Drasko and Emil in Serbia learn spellings for homework, while Marco and Madelena in Mexico practise their handwriting, and Sonam and Ram in Bhutan collect plastic bottles for a project on recycling. Again, I can see this book inspiring further research – anything from an independent project on Mongolia to, perhaps, an experiment with something different for breakfast.

Unrelated to all the above but not to be missed is the next in the hilarious Oi, Frog series by Kes Gray and Jim Field: Oi, Duck-Billed Platypus. I’m not sure who this series appeals to most – children who love the ridiculous rhymes or adults curious to see where the final punchline is going this time. Those familiar with the earlier books in the series will know that Cat, Dog, and now Frog, have been determined to find rhyming seats for every animal they can think of – thus cats sit on mats, dogs, at the last minute, sit on logs, not frogs, and so on. Clearly, in developing the series, the writing team have come up with animals for whom even they couldn’t find rhymes – and this is their book. So, the duck-billed platypus, for example. Dog suggests ‘cluck-filled hatty bus, or ‘yuk-spilled splitty mouse’ but these absurd suggestions are dismissed by Frog. Instead, ingeniously, Frog asks these animals what their first names are. The platypus is called ‘Dolly’. ‘Dollys sit on brollies’ announces Frog triumphantly. 

All his problems seem to be resolved until Geraldine Jemima Amelia Esmerelda Honeydew Higginbottom-Pinkleponk-Johnson the kangaroo arrives …

What I so love about these books (apart from that fact that they are brilliantly funny) is that, like Dr Seuss’s books, they educate children without them noticing. Rhymes, alliteration, homonyms are all in there – how much more fun it is to learn how these work from a book like this than from a textbook or school reader?

It is always a treat to find other adults who relish children’s books long after their own children have grown up. To fellow aficionados, I heartily recommend Wild Things: The Joy of Reading Children’s Literature as an Adult by Bruce Handy. The author is American so inevitably, his nostalgic reading list is mostly American – but when that includes Dr Seuss, Maurice Sendak, Eric Carle, Russell Hoban, Louisa M Alcott and Laura Ingalls Wilder, it will feel very familiar. A fascinating and enlightening semi-academic literary-critical discussion of some of the very best books for children. If I hadn’t just read it, I’d be asking for it as a stocking present and then disappearing with it to the sofa for a gloriously self-indulgent Boxing Day. A further advantage to this book is its lengthy bibliography – material for many more rainy winter days.

So, I apologise that there are no new Christmassy texts here but any of these books would make a great Christmas present. If I spot a stunning new Christmas picture book I will tell you about it in the next issue – in the meantime you can’t beat the old favourites. My top ten are:

  • Jesus’ Christmas Party by Nicholas Allen – irreverently funny
  • Cat in the Manger by Michael Foreman – a cat’s eye view of the Christmas story
  • A Child’s Christmas in Wales by Dylan Thomas – his lyrical memoir
  • Little Robin Red Breast by Jan Fearnley – full of heart-warming generosity
  • The Night Before Christmas by Clement Walker, illustrated by Niroot Puttapipat – the traditional poem with stunning cut paper illustrations
  • Babushka by Sandra Ann Horn and Sophie Fatus – the original Russian Christmas story and probably my favourite ever Christmas book
  • The Watchmaker who Saved Christmas by Bruce Whatley – a wonderful explanation of how Father Christmas manages to visit children all round the world in one night
  • The Snow Lady by Shirley Hughes – she is brilliant at capturing children’s perfectly normal but less-than generous feelings
  • The Christmas Mouse by Toby Forward and Ruth Brown – can’t read this aloud for the lump in my throat. A beautifully moving retelling of the Scrooge story.
  • The Lost Christmas Gift by Andrew Beckham – a beautifully illustrated mystical story of a Christmas gift which arrives many years late

Not all of these are still in print, but it is worth seeking them out. They are all very special and individual responses to Christmas.

All the new books listed above are available from Hart’s Books in Saffron Walden (www.hartsbooks.co.uk). You may have to search harder for the Christmas list – but I promise the search will be worth your while. I wish you all a very happy Christmas!

Books suggested by Jo Burch, Founder of Words in Walden

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