Friday, 14 April 2017

Understanding Easter for little ones

As the girls get older I've been collecting picture books that, in a variety of accessible ways, tell the story of Easter - tales of infinite love and care, great sacrifice and salvation.
When they were youngest, I found that the simplest way to introduce the fundamental idea of a God who would do anything for his children, was through the simple parable of The Lost Sheep. Culturebaby loved imaginary play and little models, and to accompany the story I created a simple play landscape for the lost sheep to venture across on his own, complete with perils for his master to overcome in carrying out his recovery. After numerous "again!"s and two versions of the tale with slightly different props, Culturebaby began to recount the story herself. We filmed it and watched it back, and I even overheard her acting it out to her soft toys from the other room as she settled down for a nap. The two excellent versions of the parable we use are the lighthearted version from Stories Jesus Told by Nick Butterworth and Mick Inkpen. This compilation is a current favourite with Culturebaby, who loves the simple moral tales re-told here in accessible form. We also really like the cut-out board book The Lost Sheep, which is slightly closer to the original and equally accessible.

Then, a little later, Culturebaby fell in love with Aslan, Narnia and all things beyond the wardrobe. I found that, even at three, Culturebaby instinctively understood the parallels in the unwaivering faith of Lucy, the forgiveness of Edmund, the sacrifice of Aslan and the defeat of the White Witch. There are many wonderful simple Narnia books for children (particularly relating to the film with photographs and simple storylines - we have rather a collection) but one of the best is the beautifully illustrated Harper Collins version of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, illustrated by Christian Birmingham, abridged well and with an extensive story. Culturebaby has rather a high tolerence for challenging and dark themes and she therefore gained a lot from the Disney film of the book. Whilst the retelling isn't perfect for the purist, from the moment she accompanied Lucy through the wardrobe she was hooked. Their world became hers and she inhabited Narnia in imagination and in play. We made a play-tray, which has been out ever since. The film was watched in part almost daily for almost a year. "Once a king or queen of Narnia, always a king or queen..."

"But what does it all mean?" asked Susan when they were somewhat calmer. 
"It means," said Aslan, "that though the Witch knew the Deep Magic, there is a magic deeper still which she did not know. Her knowledge goes back only to the dawn of Time. But if she could have looked a little further back, into the stillness and the darkness before Time dawned, she would have read there a different incantation. She would have known that when a willing victim who had committed no treachery was killed in a traitor's stead, the Table would crack and Death itself would start working backwards."
 C.S. Lewis The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe
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Then came the story of Easter itself and we have found a number of great first illustrated books re-telling the (very difficult to explain) journey from Palm Sunday to the Resurrection. Firstly Usborne's Book of Bible Stories is a gorgeous volume with a number of essential bible stories and parables. This is a perennial fixture in our mass survival bag and was the primary introduction for Culturebaby to some of the iconic characters from the Bible. She loves the format of these Usborne productions with their simple and engaging images and accessible text. The Easter story is the culmination of this volume.

More recently Usborne has also published, as part of their brilliant Picture Book series (which tackles a host of classic stories for young readers), The Easter Story illustrated by John Joven. Taking the key elements of the story, told sensitively and simply, this version has been with us to the Good Friday service today.

We also received as a gift a few years ago, a gorgeous little Easter Bible Storybook board book featuring photographs of toy models acting out the excitement of Jesus' followers as they discover that he is alive. The characters are adorable, and with the repeated phrase 'Jesus is alive', this one really stuck in the girls' consciousness and they are able to take part in the telling of this story again and again.

Finally, Culturetot's Godmother bought her a simply stunning version of a classic folktale The Tale of the Three Trees. Told from the perspective of three trees, who respectively each have dreams and aspirations to hold treasure, become a great ship, and simply to be left to grow tall and point to the heavens, each (initially disappointed), finds that they achieve more than their hearts' desires. One, thinking it was merely an animal food box becomes the manger holding the Christ child. The second, initially a simple fishing vessel, carries Christ to calm a storm. And the last, crudely crafted into an instrument of torture, finds that from it hangs Jesus as he points the way for all to the heavens. It's a profound and beautiful book and the girls love it.

A couple of years ago during the final week of Lent, we created a Resurrection Garden table centrepiece that I'd seen on another blog and loved and have done it most years since. The model presents calvary and the tomb; complete with stone blocking the entrance, which can be rolled away to reveal the empty tomb and figurines. This was extremely simple to make and was a helpful way to act out the stages of Holy Week.

Start with a large plant pot base and a smaller ceramic plant pot or piece of pipe turned on its side. Build up earth around the pot into a mound with the top of the plant pot forming a cave-like entrance surrounded by sand or gravel. We created 3 small wooden crosses from branches bound together with thread and placed these on the top of the hill. We then added cress seeds (you can also use grass seed if you have longer) which grew over the course of the week and was a visible symbol of the resurrection. We also added figurines of Mary and a Roman soldier.,204,203,200_.jpgI've also discovered other classic and newer titles that unpack brilliantly aspects of the Easter Story. The Selfish Giant by Oscar Wilde was one of my favourite childhood books and comes in a number of versions. With Wilde's beautiful prose and the message of Easter through the eyes of a child, I eternally fail to get through this classic without a hankie. A hard-hearted giant throws children, who have nowhere else to go, out of his garden; it is his garden and his alone. But without joy present the frost and snow and hail and wind move in, bringing with them a perpetual winter. Then one day the giant is awoken by birdsong; the children have broken into the garden and with them comes the spring - the trees bloom and flowers spring up. However, one corner of the garden remains in winter - a spot where a small child is unable to climb into the tree alongside his peers and reaches up to no avail. The giant's heart is melted and he goes to the garden and helps the child reach the trees, which immediately bloom. His kindness is rewarded with a kiss and the giant is healed; he knocks down the walls and the children make his garden their playground once more. The children return daily, except the little child he loved the most. The giant grows old and frail with the children all around him, but he is always hoping that the small one will return... and one day he does, but scarred with wounds on his hands and feet. The giant, enraged, asks who has dared to hurt his friend, but the child tells him that these are the wounds of love. Once he let the little child play in his garden, and so today the child explains that he will be taking the giant to his own garden - paradise. The version of this story we discovered beautifully illustrated and abridged by Alexis Deacon stops at the point the Giant bestows his garden upon the children and all find happiness. This in itself is a beautiful and profound tale for the very young. However, for 5 year old Culturebaby we also love the full version. I have a vintage version illustrated by Michael Foreman and Freire Wright from 1978, but there are others out there too.

Then another weepy, The Clown of God, tells the tale of a poor boy who finds he can juggle exceptionally well and spends his life travelling from Italian village to village entertaining the crowds. Over the course of his wanderings he meets poor Franciscans who tell him about their belief. He continues, content in the knowledge that he brings joy to those around him, until he becomes old and unable to juggle. The crowds begin to reject him and he becomes hungry and without purpose. He decides to return to the village where he began, but finds himself in a monastery faced with a stern statue of the virgin and child. He takes out his equipment and, to the horror of one monk, begins to juggle. He juggles and juggles, the best he has ever performed, just for the baby Christ before him. The monk returns with others to find that the old man has died juggling, but there is left a miracle - the statue is holding the juggler's most precious golden ball and is now smiling. It's a beautiful tale about the gift of joy, and giving all that we are, or just simply what we are able to offer, for the glory of God.

Finally a couple of beautiful secular books have come out this Easter. Firstly a stunning work of art from Prestel and Britta Teckentrup The Egg. For children and adults alike, this gloriously designed volume explores the humble egg in all its simplicity and intricacy through the eyes of an artist, and unpacks its integral role in tradition, science and art and the way this 'miracle of nature' has inspired artists from ancient times. Did you know that in the Orthodox tradition, for instance, eggs were died red to represent Christ's death, and it was once a custom to place eggs on Christian graves? Many artists have paid homage to the egg as a source of life and in many ancient myths gods and heroes have hatched from eggs. This unique and fascinating book is a great addition to anyone's Easter bookshelf.

Finally a bit of fun. Spring is the time of new life, of appleblossoms and glorious magnolia, a riot of colour bringing the positivity of warmth. Usborne has published a beautiful and detailed book of The Wild Garden with transfers and, if one were so inclined, the opportunity for detailed colouring and observation. It's a perfect Eastertime gift to combat the riot of chocolate and I'm looking forward to trying it out with the girls on Sunday. Here are a few further Springtime and Easter activities from the blog.

Disclaimer: Many of the titles we have covered in this post are our own, however, we are grateful to Usborne for providing their books over the last few years for review purposes, and to Prestel for the beautiful new title, The Egg. As always, all opinions are entirely my own.

Saturday, 18 March 2017

Cozy Classics - An Audience with the Authors

A while ago we wrote about a beautiful and original introduction to the classics, the BabyLit series by Jennifer Adams and Alison Oliver. These have been real favourites amongst many people we know, and Mr Darcy and Lizzie Bennett from the Pride and Prejudice playset regularly race each other round the room in the interests of creative persuasion for Culturebaby to practice her violin. We also wrote about re-creating the Georgians in this post about dressing up our dolls in easy-to-make Regency attire. This was one of the most effective and memorable activities Culturebaby and friends have enjoyed. The girls also love visiting the costume collections in the V&A Museum and the Museum of London and spotting the dresses they see in our books.

Fans of both these projects will be delighted to hear that whilst perusing the internet I fell across another utterly adorable and completely unique set of books designed to introduce the youngest reader to the great classics, this time through the idea of simple word association with particular scenes. The absolute joy of these gorgeous titles, collectively called Cozy Classics, which ooze character and creativity on the part of their creators, is that they contain photographs of scenes painstakingly created from felt dolls set up in natural environments. These exquisite characters seem to truly capture the essence of the titles that they represent. Also, a huge bonus, they follow the stories in order through a series of scenes, and whilst the titles do not provide the narrative, they do allow a parent who knows the tales to re-tell them simply and effectively. They are absolutely stunning additions to the girls' library, and whilst they are board books, both girls enjoy them. We will treasure this set beyond childhood.

We were very interested in the inspiration and creative process for these brilliant little books, so we posed a few questions to the authors. We hope you enjoy this unique insight into the creation of Cozy Classics from Holman and Jack Wang.

How did you come up with the idea of using handmade characters to illustrate a classic?

HOLMAN: When Jack came up with the idea for Cozy Classics years ago, I loved it. However, neither of us were trained illustrators (I’m a lawyer and Jack’s a creative writing professor). We didn’t think that anything we might draw or paint would stand out in the marketplace, so we had to think outside the box. I came up with the idea of needle-felting wool figures and photographing them to create our images—not that I had ever needle-felted before! So I jumped onto YouTube, watched a few videos, and taught myself the technique. Then I created some initial test images, which we thought were fresh and could give us a signature style. We’ve been felting ever since.

Why did you decide to focus on classic books for the very young?

JACK: The idea for Cozy Classics arose out of my experiences reading word primers to one of my daughters when she was very young. Early word books all seemed to be organized around concepts—shapes, numbers, colours, barnyard animals. All very important, of course, but not the most engaging reading for parents. I wondered to myself why word primers couldn’t be organized around narrative. I thought that creating extreme abridgments of well-loved stories would inject interest, irony and humour into the word primer genre, and I think we’ve done that. And if parents present one of our word primers to their children with just that little extra bit of enthusiasm, then we will have done our tiny part in helping parents model an engaged and affectionate relationship with books.

How do you decide on which story to do next? What would you like to cover in the future?

J: We decide our next titles based on an ever-shifting logic. Our first two titles, Pride and Prejudice and Moby Dick, just seemed like quintessential classics—one “girl friendly” and one “boy friendly.” Then we wanted to push our abridgements to the extreme by taking on massive tomes like War and Peace and Les Misérables, which also expanded the series into Russian and French literature. After taking on some moodier classics such as Jane Eyre, Oliver Twist and Great Expectations, we wanted to balance the series with lighter fare, so more recent titles include The Nutcracker and The Wizard of Oz. So there’s always a rationale, but it’s never the same. As for what we’d like to take on in the future, there are a few titles that are not quite in the public domain, like The Great Gatsby, that are on our list.

What sources do you use as inspiration for the costumes you create?

H: Costuming is always an interesting challenge because we obviously want our characters to evoke the proper sense of time and place for each book. At the same time, we want to bring our own design elements to a character. So we watch movie adaptations of the classics and research images of period clothing to draw inspiration. Then we try to design costumes that are fresh, but still resonate with popular imagination.

What do you do with the little figures when you've finished working with them? Do they live as a little collection together?

H: Most of the felt figures live in my garage studio in Vancouver, Canada after they’ve “retired.” Luckily, however, the figures do get out for fresh air sometimes! I take figures with me when I do school visits, and we’ve had museum exhibitions which have required us to fly figures around the continent. For example, our figures have been exhibited at The Strong, National Museum of Play in Rochester, New York, as well as The Original Art Exhibition put on by the Society of Illustrators in New York City.

What feedback have you had on the approach taken - using single words on each page? Do you find parents fill in their favourite stories using the scenes? Why did you go with this particular way of exploring the stories?

J: We’ve received a lot of appreciative feedback from parents who relish the opportunity to share their favorite stories and characters with children at the earliest stages of learning. Parents definitely use our books as storytelling vehicles. And as we like to say, there’s no “wrong” way to read Cozy Classics. Even if parents don’t know the original classics, they can always make up the story, or ask their child to. The only important thing is that parents and children bond over books, and the earlier the better!

Do you see a future series for slightly older children with simple versions of the stories themselves using the gorgeous photos in the originals?

H: We actually had this debate with our original publisher before the series was launched. They worried that word primer versions of the classics wouldn’t work, and actually encouraged us to pair each of our images with a couple of simple sentences. We resisted this idea. It diluted our “high concept,” discouraged parents from storytelling in an open-ended way, and opened us up to criticisms that the simple prose lacked the beauty or music of the original texts—criticisms that haven’t been directed towards our word primer versions. After Cozy Classics hit store shelves and met with early success, our publisher told us that Jack and I were right to stick to our guns. So, no, we don’t see a future series for slightly older children at this time. But it’s a great question!

You can watch a wonderful behind the scenes video here, narrated by the authors showing the creative process and how the scenes were made:


You can also access instructions for a great extension activity on simple felting provided to us by Jack and Holman. Click here to learn how to felt a heart.

We are hugely grateful to the publishers of Cozy Classics, the fantastic Chronicle Books, who sent us copies of the series to review and to the talented Jack and Holman Wang who took the time to answer our questions. We hope you've enjoyed meeting the authors as part of this post.

In the Night Garden Tour 2017

It will soon be that time of year when green spaces around the country grow a strange bubble-like snow dome and toddlers from Richmond to Manchester career around the streets grasping miniature inflated Pinky Ponks. We've re-posted last year's review of In The Night Garden Live below and we are hosting, until the end of March, a unique discount code for Culturebaby readers.

In the Night Garden Live runs annually and tickets can be booked at this site or on 0330 120 0123

This year's dates are as follows:

Blackheath, London 25 May - 10 Jun 2017

Richmond Old Deer Park, London 17 Jun - 5 Jul 2017

Cannon Hill Park, Birmingham 12 Jul - 30 Jul 2017

intu Trafford Centre, Manchester 5 Aug - 28 Aug 2017

Tickets: £12.50 - £35
Two separate shows throughout the run: The Pinky Ponk Show and The Ninky Nonk Show
Running time: just under 1 hour for each show with no interval.

Some things in life provide wonderful experiences because of their simple and arresting joy. In the Night Garden Live is an adorable production for the very young and rarely have I witnessed such unparalleled delight in little people as at the arrival of these household names in larger than life form before their eyes.

In The Night Garden is one of those utterly bizarre, and probably genius, Cbeebies programmes that have captured the heart of a nation. At the slightest whisper of threat to children's programming, parents declare war in defence of Upsy Daisy the pacifier and Iggle Piggle the entertainer of their miniature brood. I'm not sure a few years ago that I could have imagined I'd be writing an article about this surreal toddler wonderland, but there too leapt I into the giant showdome, pre-schoolers in tow, and found myself surrounded by the Richmond parenthood chanting along in one voice to the unintelligible but gripping choruses of Makka Pakka
, Akka Wakka, Mikka Makka moo! and Igglepiggle, wiggle, niggle, woo!  
I wonder what a future anthropologist falling upon some ancient footage might deduce from such scenes: who are these furry deities depicted on materials from dining equipment to painted bedroom walls, treasured in effigy and emitting strange and otherwordly chanting? But to the 2 year old, who sees true friends and companions in these colourful puppets, the whole phenomenon makes total sense.There are two shows available this summer, each covering a simple tale. Let's be honest these are not (for the adult observer) complex and gripping tales of adventure. In ours Makka Pakka travels around the garden, introducing a range of his buddies and washing their faces. At one point he loses a sponge. The sponge is consequently recovered. There are bubbles. There is dancing. But the joy created in this showdome is utterly infectious. It was a thoroughly happy event, with audible expressions of delight throughout from young and old alike. It isn't cheap and inevitably is rather commercialised, but it is a great child-friendly performance and good option for a first experience of theatre designed entirely for and on a perfect wavelength for the very young.

My four year old, who in hindsight didn't consider herself too mature for the whole experience, was particularly taken with the sense of scale and use of various sized puppets to bring the Night Garden alive. A larger Makka Pakka emerged alongside the Pontipines, whilst a smaller puppet was used beside the enormous Iggle Piggle. There were glorious moments when Iggle Piggle's boat appears amongst the waves, when Upsy Daisy finally danced onto stage, and when projections of stars onto the ceiling made the whole experience multi-dimensional.
As I circled my toddler's palm with my finger as the show began and witnessed her childish awe at the familiar spectacle unfolding before her, the emotion associated with the brevity of this tiring but wonderful phase rather bowled me over. I found myself wanting Oliver-like to bottle the whole experience. For In the Night Garden - for better or for worse - seems to be a right of passage for today's toddler and now, as then, I recall the immortal words of Evelyn Waugh:
"I should like to bury something precious in every place that I have been happy, so that when I'm old and ugly and miserable, I could come back and dig it up, and remember."

We received a family ticket in exchange for an honest review of the performance. As always all views are very much my own. Photographs courtesy of In the Night Garden Live.

Sunday, 26 February 2017

Let's Find Fred Blog Tour and Giveaway - Inspiration and the Creative Process

Today we are lucky to be joined on the blog by author and illustrator Steven Lenton who has written a guest post for us to celebrate the publication of his new picture book Let's Find Fred. With its brilliantly captured detail, bold colours and humorous cameos, this book is a pleasure for children and adult alike and the girls have been enjoying it on bedtime-story repeat for the last couple of weeks - not least due to the movable panda eyes on the front cover.

For any art-lover, the book is worth buying simply for the double page spread where naughty Fred, chased by his exhausted zoo-keeper, escapes through a gallery filled with cleverly panda-ized art and artefacts... from Egyptian panda deities and Warholed versions to Mona-Bear and the Bear with a Pearl Earring. If you look closely through the story, you can also spot the Beatles and other cultural cameos.

For his guest blog post, we asked Steven to tell us about where the inspiration came from for his book, and how the creative process works. He's also treated us to a glimpse of some of his early sketches and concept designs. I love looking at these images - they are an unparalleled chance to see where picture book illustrations begin, and give us a glimpse of the hand of the creator behind the polished result we only usually get to see.

"Let’s Find Fred was created from an original concept by Scholastic and my fun animal character designs that they spotted in both my earlier picture books and greeting card designs.

Over the years I have loved visiting zoos and have drawn lots and lots of animals in both my sketchbooks and final artwork for picture books. I love drawing and designing animals so when Scholastic approached me with this project I leapt at it like Fred at a Candy Floss factory!
Creating the aesthetic for Fred was a very collaborative process and I really enjoyed designing a new Panda character.

Here are some early concept designs:

I always start my books with lots of pencil sketches of the main character, then any subsidiary characters, in this case Stanley the Zoo keeper and the other animals.

The large, round fluffiness of Fred works nicely with Stanley who is very angular and sharp – inspired by the Mr Man, Mr Rush – his triangular nose always pointing in the way of the chase!

Once I have designed the characters in my sketchbook in black and white (VERY handy for a Panda!) I then move on to colour – in this case I thought it would be great to give Fred a red accessory and a tie seemed to be the perfect fit for Fred – I tried a regular tie but it made him look too much like a business panda and was a bit too serious, so a bow tie it was!

The Scholastic team and I wanted to create a fresh, bold look for Fred and I researched lots of ‘Spot the…’ genre of books to get an idea of the kind of styles that work well with this kind of book.  I decided on a colourful, minimal-lined style, not dissimilar to my usual work but with a simpler, less chalky edge.  This was mainly because, as there a lot of small details and characters among the varied city scenes, bold silhouettes, clear to read expressions and acting were essential. 
The background elements such as vehicles, signage and foliage were fairly simple to design once the characters had been set – bold, simple lines and colours with a varied palette on each spread to enhance the atmosphere and theme of each scene.
 The final look and feel is hopefully a nice combination of contemporary design and a warm, cuddly, fun collection of characters, vehicles, environments and narrative.  I hope everyone enjoys the book – it really was such fun to create!"
I love the sort of story book adventure that re-imagines famous art through the eyes of other creatures. It gets you to really look at why certain works are so recognisable, even when adapted, and it is always a joy to see how the unique styles of artists have been so effectively captured as part of other worlds. Two others I'd recommend are ones I collected a while ago and they are both great introductions to art as well as lovely stories. The first is part of the well-known suite of original Babar books. Here the royal family of elephants turn to philanthropy and create a museum to house all the work they have collected over the years - modelled on a combination of the Musee D'Orsay and the Met in New York, and containing much of the canon of famous works (plus an artist in residence - Pollock!). The family move through the museum discussing what they like and why - its a great exploration of what museums and art are really for and how they can serve as inspiration for our own creativity. The second is a sweet tale about a group of cats who are unimpressed that little of the art they see contains images of felines. They set out on a journey round the globe to rectify the situation. Of course the Mona Lisa needs a cat to cuddle, Van Gogh's chair is far too empty and there are always cats in homes. Where is Las Meninas' cat?  This pair of books are a great addition to any little Culturebaby's bookcase.

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Tuesday, 14 February 2017

Books about Love for Little People

With Valentine's Day around the corner, I'm reminded of one of Culturetot's favourite themed sensory baskets: an extremely simple to produce love-themed mixture that has been resurrected for two years in the run. I found a set of heart-shaped measuring cups and threw in a base of Risotto rice and tiny pasta stars, foil and satin confetti, dried flower petals, feathers, wooden hearts and - the absolute winner - pom poms of various shapes and sizes. Culturetot really enjoyed scooping and pouring, sorting the items, collecting the pom poms and stacking the cups. All great for sensory awareness, fine motor development and colour matching practice. The last basket stayed around for months.

Over the last twelve months or so we've also read a host of brilliant new books on the theme of love and I've been saving them for a round-up like this. There are no traditional marry-a-prince tales in this selection. Rather, I've chosen a set of books that speak to our little ones in different ways about the nature of love - from friendship, to sacrifice, the journey of belonging, to a passion to improve the world for others. You'll find many others of this nature in one of our most popular posts Books to Change Children's Thinking. Here are a few more thought-provoking numbers both new and vintage.

The Classics

Guess book detailNo list on love would be complete without the classic tale from McBratney and Jeram which coined that gorgeous phrase "I love you to the Moon and back" and to celebrate 20 years of Guess How Much I Love You there's a lovely shiny new hardback version just been released this Spring. It's a beautiful, simple little story about a small rabbit's endeavour to explain to his Daddy quite how much he adores him. Whether to the ends of his toes, as far as he can stretch, or even to the Moon, his Daddy's love is able to stretch even further.

Next up, and first published in 1963, Fly Away Peter by Frank Dickens and Ralph Steadman has been republished for today's children by Pavilion. Jeffrey is a downhearted Giraffe; his neck is too short and he is unable to play with his peers. One day he stumbles across a kindred soul; a bird who cannot fly. Neither have friends and they find solace in each other's company. Through their friendship and care for each other, and a surprising game of hide and seek, they each find help and their hearts desire.

I recently watched the film of The Velveteen Rabbit for the first time with the girls, and, my goodness, what a heartbreaking and inspiring story. It isn't a book I knew well as a child, but even discovering it more recently, I can still relate to the childhood soft toy as an extension of one's self and the immense fear and sadness of losing a precious old companion. First published in 1920, this beautiful classic reminds us of the truth that it is love that makes us real. I particularly love this quote, and reading it with my girls and my threadbare old bears Mishoo and Edward still looking on, there is little that captures the first loves of our childhood so well, or the real message behind Valentines Day:
"Weeks passed and the little rabbit grew very old and shabby, but the Boy loved him just as much. He loved him so hard that he loved all his whiskers off, and the pink lining to his ears turned grey, and his brown spots faded. He even began to lose his shape, and he scarcely looked like a rabbit any more, except to the Boy. To him he was always beautiful, and that was all that the little Rabbit cared about. He didn't mind how he looked to other people, because the nursery magic made him Real, and when you are Real shabbiness doesn't matter."
Next a little classic from my childhood Just For You by Mercer Mayer, which I'm delighted to see is still available. It's a hillarious tale of a little creature who wants desparately to show his mum how much he loves and wants to help her, but unfortunately everything he attempts goes wrong. "I wanted to not splash in my bath just for you... but there was a storm." The pictures are fantastic, the troubles endearingly funny, and of course, as is the case for every little person trying to do their best, a moment of love and huge toddler effort erases anything that has gone before.

Finally in the classics, a new offering from the eternally brilliant Shirley Hughes Alfie and His Very Best Friend. We've encountered Bernard many times before. Annie Rose likes him, he is funny and makes big art. He and Alfie are different - they don't always behave in the same way or like the same things, but they are best friends - and that's what matters. My favourite part of this lovely book features a scooter race for the under 5s. Alfie scooted as hard as he could, but Bernard who was excellent at scooting was much faster. Then disaster - Alfie skidded and fell off his scooter, hitting the ground with a big thud. Seeing what happened to his best friend, Bernard stopped, lost his lead and went to help his friend. In the end someone else won the race and Alfie and Bernard came in later, crossing the finishing line together. This image really reminded me of my Bernard. She is called Kate. We were both pretty hopeless at running and we had a fundamental objection to being forced to run the 3000 metres because nobody else wanted to do it. We jogged one lap, walked the next and linked arms to cross the finishing line together. She's still a best friend and I cannot think of one time she has ever let me down. "You are a true friend" Dad told Bernard when the race was over. If my little women can be friends to others like that, I'll be immensely proud, and I hope they too find their Bernards and their Kates.

On Sharing and Sacrifice

Image may contain: indoorImage may contain: foodThere are some great books around on sharing and the greater importance of having a friend than material possessions, and one of the most brilliant is We Found A Hat by Jon Klassen. In the simplest of tales, two tortoises discover a hat, but there is only one hat. It looks good on both of them, and they both want it. "But it would not be right if one of us had a hat and the other did not..." How will both parties deal with this difficult decision? Quirkily illustrated and extremely perceptive, this picture book teaches a crucial lesson to even the tiniest of readers.

 A couple of other great titles include the simple and effective Two Can by Smriti Prasdam-Halls and Ben Javens. Using only very few words and striking images, the book plays with the word 'can'. I can swing alone, you can't (too small). One can build a sandcastle, two perhaps cannot. But two are required to see-saw, two can be friends and two can encourage the other when they can't go it alone. It's a simple message for little people that playing together and sharing is much better than being alone.
Two final, extremely cute additions to the sharing pile are Crunch by Carolina Rabei - a tale about a ravenous guinea pig who refuses to share his food with his new friend Cheddar at all costs. A hug in exchange for a morsel of food? You must be kidding! But then he turns his back and his friend disappears  - Crunch pictures Cheddar starving and alone, and realises that he kept his food but lost a friend. He sets out to find his pal and learns the important lesson of how to say sorry.

Image result for plenty of love to go round 

We love Emma Chichester Clark's gorgeous illustrations and the girls enjoyed her tale of rivalry between cat and dog Plenty of Love to Go Round. Perfect to share with siblings, or to prepare an older child for the arrival of a baby (see many more recommendations on this theme here) this story focusses on the message that a heart (and indeed cat basket) can expand to include those who may appear at first glance to be our rivals.

On Forgiveness 
Image result for the lonely giantTwo lovely new reads on the theme of forgiveness are The Lonely Giant by Sophie Ambrose and Frog and Beaver by Simon James. A giant, keen on bashing, smashing and mashing the environment around him becomes sad and lonely when the forest an all its animals begin to recede and all becomes quiet and still. He remembers the beauty of birdsong, and one day sighting a little yellow bird, he captures and cages it - hoping it will sing for him. The bird grows sadder and sadder and can no longer sing until the giant sets her free, saying how sorry he is, and she flies away. He wonders what he can do to bring back the forest, the plants and the animals and sets to work mending all that he has broken; planting, sowing, mending mountains. Then he watched and waited and, after much patience, the forest bloomed again. His joy had returned, and with it, the little bird.

Image result for frog and beaver
Frog and Beaver are friends, but beaver is frankly too enthusiastic with his dam-building. He will take no advice and ruins the habitats of those around him, who are forced to move. Frog takes matters into this own hands and tries to convince his friend to listen - still no hope. Eventually Beaver's dam becomes so enormous it collapses; destroying homes and almost killing him. Frog saves his life and even the twice-displaced animals forgive him. The girls seem to love this story and it has a great environmental message too.

On Bringing Beauty to Those Around You stunning new book from the Fan Brothers The Night Gardener is the most stunningly illustrated we've seen this year. An old man and expert in topiary arrives in a dull village where everyone seems to be going through the motions. He sets to work transforming their environment and providing a focus for rejoicing. His stunning creations are closely observed by young orphan William, who discovers a real sense of wonder and excitment. Something was happening on Grimloch Lane. Something good. One night as William heads home, he stumbles across the night gardener at work and becomes his apprentice. And then day comes, the park is transformed, the gardener is gone - but he leaves a legacy  - a young boy with a new passion and a set of shears. This stunning book speaks on so many levels, of the transformative effect of creativity and joy, the crucial legacy of stimulating a love for something in a new generation and how selfless and positive intervention will always leave the world a better place.

Image result for miss hazeltinesBirgitta Sif is one of my favourite contemporary illustrators and here, her collaboration with Alicia Potter has resulted in a simply beautiful little book about the lovely Miss Hazeltine, who runs a home for timid moggies. Miss Hazeltine's Home for Shy and Fearful Cats is a gorgeous tale about the loyalty and love that can come from a relationship with someone who is truly patient and kind, and works with our flaws and fears; loving us through them. The loveliness of this picture book not only reminds us of this, but that often more importantly those we aim to save will ultimately save us in turn.

On Simple Love

No automatic alt text available.Finally, a trio of simple books about love. Firstly one for the very young - This is the Kiss by Claire Harcup, is a simplest illutration of the beauty and joy of the love of a parent - from a wave to a cuddle to a snuggle a goodnight kiss. It is a great early bedtime book.

The second is one of our favourites from last year Oskar loves... by Britta Teckentrup. With beautiful lyrical language and description, and the loveliest of illustrations, adorable Oscar sets out what it is in life that he really loves. From the the smell of spring to sweet red cherries, losing himself in books to the silence of snow. And of course his favourite pebble, which Culturetot was delighted to receive the the post from Oscar and proudly displays on her fireplace. This book reminds us so effectively to stop and look around - and take delight in the beauty and simplicity of the world through the eyes of a child.

Finally - the quirkiest of our Valentines selection, Zurine Aguirre's The Sardines of Love. This originally illustrated and unusual tale from Childsplay publishing is a funny story about an old couple, Lolo and Lola, who are stuck in their ways. Lolo loves to fish and adores sardines. Lola sells and cooks them for him daily - but she hates them. One day Lola sells all the sardines in the shop, and wanting to be sure Lolo doesn't go hungry she goes out fishing alone and calamity strikes -she is swallowed by Jeff the giant Octopus. Faced with no other option she sets up home there and realises that actually she rather likes the only food available - sardines. Lolo, increasingly sad and desperate without his wife floats out to the ocean on a river of his own teams to find himself reunited with his Lola. This is certainly one of the more original books of the last couple of years...

Disclaimer: Many of the newer books were sent to us over time for the purposes of an honest review. I only select the books I particularly like. 

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