SALAD DAYS BOOK REVIEW for Easter 2019

March 19

Just like the daffodils, here comes a crop of vibrant picture books all about colour to brighten the gloom as spring brings an end to the dark days of winter!

The first is What’s Your Favourite Colour? by Eric Carle and friends. Eric Carle, always inspirational, has asked illustrators from around the world to choose their favourite colour and to illustrate why it is so special to them. The result – a book with page after page of gloriously varied illustrations and intriguing explanations. This is a picture book for children but, frankly, anyone even a little bit interested in illustration will love it, delving as it does into the creative process. 

How about American illustrator Anna Dewdney’s contribution, for example? ‘When I was a little girl, my favourite outfit was my purple polyester trouser suit, and I wanted purple peacocks in the front garden. When I grew up, I got them.’ Is it only me who now wants to know where you can get purple peacocks?

Next is Bob’s Blue Period by another top-flight illustrator and educator, Marion Deuchars. Bob is a bird whose best friend is a bat. They do everything together, including creating wild and colourful art. When bat goes away (to hibernate, it turns out), Bob get the blues and his whole world turns blue including all his still-life paintings and portraits. His friends are very concerned for him and come up with a wonderfully imaginative way to put colour back into his world. I’m not going to tell you how, but the richness of the colour pouring out of that page after all the dark blue will not fail to lift your spirits, too. Of course, bat then comes home, and all is well – with a delightful twist on the final page.

I love Marion Deuchar’s artwork – the briefest of broad casual brush strokes of paint or ink capture the mood and movement of her characters with such deft warmth and humour. Impossible to quote here from this book as the illustrations are so central to its magic. You’ll just have to believe me. And then buy your own copy.

Tusk Tusk by David McKee takes colour in a different and very powerful direction. This is a re-issue of a book first published in 1978. I missed it first time round (I was too old and my children not even a twinkle in anyone’s eye). It was one of Oliver Jeffers’ favourites, though. It is about two warring tribes of elephant – the black ones and the white ones. ‘One day all the black elephants decided to kill all the white elephants, and the white ones decided to kill all the black.’ The ugly battle begins while the peace-loving elephants on both sides escape into the jungle. Adults will know what’s coming: two piles of dead elephants and a herd of gentle grey elephant grandchildren emerging from the jungle (so there’s a bit of genetics to explain there, too!). The story doesn’t quite end there but I leave it to you to discover (or remember, if you’re old enough) what happens next. 

It is rare to find a picture book with pictures of real hard anger and hatred. David McKee’s bright, strong, apparently simple illustrating style works brilliantly – angry red skies giving way to soft blue against the green of the jungle. This book works on so many levels that it is easy to see why the publishers have chosen to re-issue it.

Ged Adamson’s Ava and the Rainbow (who Stayed) is another book with several layers of messages. Ava is excited. ‘Not because the rain was stopping. She was excited because the sun was coming out. And that meant one thing. A rainbow.’ She longs for the rainbow to stay forever. It does. At first this is a source of joy and wonder for all around. The rainbow becomes the town’s mascot (much to the disgust of the old town mascot). Commerce cashes in: ‘The shops were suddenly full of rainbow-themed souvenirs’. But Ava is overjoyed. 

The rainbow stays, even through the dark cold days of winter (when he ‘shivered and shook’) but gradually and inevitably people forget to appreciate how glorious and special he is. Their attention is grabbed by the next ‘rare and precious sight’. And the rainbow leaves. Ava is in despair but, of course, the next time it rains, the rainbow returns. Ava understands that he won’t stay but that he will always return – ‘a rare and precious sight indeed.’ A lovely and uplifting story at face value; a message about the need to appreciate what is rare and precious; a comment on our tendency to cheapen and exploit what is lovely; possibly even a Christian message – so much richness in a very simple story with illustrations full of bright joyful colour.

From rainbows to clouds and a very unusual book of poetry and illustrations by Latvian author Juris Kronbergs – The Book of Clouds. This is one of those books by someone whose thought processes are intriguingly different. I’d say it would appeal to children of 8+ (and upwards to all those adults who loved Gavin Pretor-Pinney’s Cloud Spotter’s Guide). 

Perhaps the first poem sets the perspective:

‘Hey, cloud above me, big and full – 

What makes you so beautiful?’

‘You – you do!

I see you there:

Small as a spot, round as a dot!’

Every poem, thought, and illustration in the book is about our philosophical relationship with clouds. There’s a lot of incidental wordplay, of the sort which sends you back to double-take, e.g. ‘Some clouds are rich, some only pour.’, striking imagery in, for example, the poem called Rain like piano chords, and plain surrealism as, for example, the short poem, Cloud Vitamins which goes, ‘Healthy cloud drops are, for example, A and B, and C, and D.’ The illustration has cloud E crossed out. I don’t know what it means but I like it.

The author, illustrator and the two translators are given recognition at the back of the book – quite rightly, as I am in awe of anyone able to translate all this surrealism. There’s an element of Spike Milligan’s zany brainstorming here but with zen-like calm, as befits a book about clouds. There is a glossary of very unfamiliar Latvian vocabulary, and suggestions for writing one’s own poems, thinking about different perspectives. Not mainstream – but intelligent and imaginative children will, I think, be exhilarated by the ideas. I’m adding it to my collection of books to spend time with.

I like picture books about the process of writing, and I’ve seen two books recently which are worth telling you about. The first, Bear’s Story by Claire Freedman and Alison Friend is a very gentle account of a bear whose favourite book has been re-read so often that its pages fall out and have blown away. He sets out to write his own replacement but can’t think what to write about. Various procrastinating little adventures and encounters follow which Bear then realises he can build into his new story. The very simple story he writes is not only charming but will also encourage children to realise that they, too, can make stories out of their experiences. 

 

I Do Not Like Books Anymore by Daisy Hirst is equally encouraging but in a very different way. Natalie and her little brother Alphonse are two monsters who like books and stories – ‘Picture books with Dad “with voices”, scary books Mum read when Alphonse was sleeping, Granny’s stories about Melvin Plant Pot and the Terrible Shrew’ (acted out by granny with props). Natalie is very excited about the prospect of learning to read but when she starts, ‘the letters and words looked like prickles or birds’ feet’. She becomes very despondent and throws her books away. She claims that she has no time to read because her imaginary friend Sinead is ill and she has to look after her. Gently, she is wooed back to making up a story about Sinead, with lots of suggestions from Alphonse. Alphonse thinks it is a good story and should be in a book so they can read it again – with pictures. They settle down to draw the pictures and Dad writes the words so Natalie can read it again, ‘mostly’.

All parents of young children will have experienced the frustration of their eager readers, but I haven’t seen a book which tackles the issue quite so effectively before. Fabulous!

Finally, two books which I include simply because they are beautiful. The first is The Real Boat by Marina Aromshtam, illustrated by Victoria Semykina. Translated from the Russian, it is about a little paper boat on a pond. It hears a duck’s stories about real boats on the ocean and sets off on a voyage of discovery down increasingly large waterways, meeting bigger and bigger boats, both helpful and unfriendly, until it finds itself far out to sea. The last boat it encounters ‘was one of the naval fleet’s destroyers. The destroyer seemed unhappy – cold and expressionless – and the paper boat didn’t dare speak to him. The destroyer disappeared back into the fog, as though he had never been there at all.’ At each stage the boat, which looked very large in its pond, gets smaller and smaller in perspective (and consequently, satisfyingly harder and harder to spot on the page) until there is a remarkable and moving rescue. I’m not sure that I can define what it is which makes Russian literature distinctive but this book (and its illustrations) has it.

And then, The Dam by David Almond, illustrated by Levi Pinfold. David Almond is always an interesting writer, winning the highest international awards for children’s writing for his books like Skellig, My Name is Mina, and My Dad’s a Birdman. The Dam is no less worthy of respect. In very few words, it tells the true story of a family coming to terms with the flooding of their valley to create Kielder Water, the largest artificial lake in the UK, in North Northumberland. With stunning, mystical illustrations which capture the wild beauty of the area, David Almond’s simple, plain text recalls how the family capture and keep, in their music, their memories of the valley, the now-drowned houses and trees, the birds and animals which left. As the beautiful new lake appears and nature comes to life again, ‘behind the dam within the water the music stays, will never be gone. We hear it when we walk the shores, as we sail its satin surface, as we fish in its fertile waters …The music is inside us. It flows through all the dams in us. It makes us play. It makes us sing. It makes us dance.’

As always, all these books are either on the shelves or can be ordered from Hart’s Books in Saffron Walden (www.hartsbooks.co.uk). Enjoy brightening your Spring!

Books suggested by Jo Burch

Founder of Words in Walden

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