Monday 27 October 2014

Baby Book Club: All Creatures Great and Small

Autumn is definitely here with its fiery shades, crunchy paths and changeable weather. At its best, the golden light streaming sideways through the leaves is unpassable in its beauty, at its worst it is wet and windy and only the brave and welly-clad dare venture out with a pram. Culturebaby is currently refusing to wear anything other than summer dresses, and combined with her rejection of anything resembling a coat she's sporting themal vests, pink wellies and floral prints. Even she (almost) admitted defeat mid-week as she complained about the cold and went to bed clutching a hot water bottle. Last Sunday, however, was one of the golden glorious ones and we took a break from the DIY-a-thon to dabble in a spot of Gruffalo hunting over at Wendover Woods.

 I'm not sure anyone reading this blog needs an introduction to the most famous of Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler's lovable rogues. With her genius for storytelling and wizardry with words, Julia is a Titan of children's literature; her rhymes the chorus of toddlers everywhere, and her creatures the stuff of modern legend. We had a wonderful hour or so creeping around the woods in the footsteps of many toddlers before us, unearthing images of foxes, snakes and owls, and finally being rewarded with a rather unexpected and beautifully carved sculpture of our eponymous thug who celebrates his 15th birthday this year. I gather there's a number of such trails around and we'd highly recommend it for an autumnal family ramble.

We also, finally, and begrudgingly, packed up our summer imaginative play landscape with its flowers and picnics and created a new autumn wild wood scene. Following our summer escapades, Culturebaby is still very much taken with The Wind in the Willows and Peter Rabbit and friends. Ratty and Co. have taken up residence in the wood, and Mr Todd is already causing havoc amongst the rabbits.

I used a number of foraged autumn cones, conkers and leaves, twigs and stones we have collected in recent weeks alongside some cute wooden hedgehogs, owls and leaves I bought in a craft shop, skeleton leaves in autumnal colours and a selection of woodland animals and pets from Safari's fantastic Pets Megatoob.

However, one of the joys of the nights drawing in, nursery-spread snivels and cold weather, is the chance for lots of cosy snuggles and reading together. In the last few months we've been sent lots of gorgeous new picture book titles themed around that favoured of pre-school topics - animals and their antics. Given that Culturebaby would frankly rather eat books than dinner (in fact today - perhaps inspired by Oliver Jeffers' The Amazing Book Eating Boy - she declared she would like to eat stories), I'm always on the look out for great new titles for her to devour. Here's a selection of fab new offerings - some creative and fresh titles, reworked classics, new stories about old friends and even tales to help with phonics.

First; two titles from Tate Publishing. Before I had children I didn't know that Tate published their own range of children's books. They do, and they are (as expected) quirky, stunningly illustrated and inventive. They sport quality binding, beautiful paper and lovely writing. First Little Big Boubo, by award winning Italian Illustrator Beatrice Alemagna, introduces a tiny hedgehog who is quite clear that he is no longer a toddler. He declares that he is a big boy with his big eyes and nose and four teeth. He can ride a bicycle and can climb all the way to the top! In an endearing coda we discover that this little chap with his toddler-like sense of humour does not really get his joyful sense of self and accomplishment from a misplaced view of the world. Rather, he is told by his mother, and believes entirely, that he is big because he is his mother's biggest love. This affirming message is perfect for all our little big babies.

Second, there's another clever commentary on the lot of the toddler; A Dog Day by Emily Rand. With eye catching monochrome images and a simple storyline, Culturebaby chuckled away at this rhyming tale, narrated by a dog who is desperate to get to the park. Unable to understand all the procrastination and chatting, he is dragged round the shops, PAST the park gate; catching tantalising glimpses between the railings. He meets a kindred soul in a baby strapped into a pushchair; equally below the line of conversation. Finally, numerous shops and a cafe later, the moment of joy arrives, he reaches the park and bounds away with his myriad of friends. Freedom. we have another new doggy tale, mirroring what toddlers do best this time of year - relishing any opportunity to splash in muddy puddles. Puddle Pug by American author Kim Norman and illustrated with an interesting and distinctly Japanese flavour, is a lovely tale about the tempestuous and troubling course of toddler passions, with all their difficulties with sharing and reciprocation. Percy the Pug loves puddles of every sort - so much so he maps them to help him find them all again. Unfortunately, however, one day he finds the perfect puddle but it is already occupied by a family of pigs. And just like the playgroup's only yellow and red Little Tykes Car, no other item will do. Much loved wallowing places were rejected as no longer acceptable. The Pug is singleminded in his quest. He tries to invade, blend in unnoticed, he even resorts to bribery but to no avail. Happily, the tale ends well. Puddle pug saves the day and finally makes friends and all learn to share. Its rather a happy little lesson for two and three year olds everywhere, for whom this is often an elusive virtue.

jacket image for The Owl and the Pussy-cat by Edward Lear - large version
Next, we have an appropriate marriage of two newly published celebrations of Edward Lear's most famous couple The Owl and The Pussy-Cat. First comes a stunningly illustrated gift version of the original, then a sequel from the wonderful Julia Donaldson, herself a devotee of Lear and his talent for nonsense poetry. Lear originally wrote the illustrated poem for the poorly three year old daughter of a friend, and I've discovered that my three year old loves it too. I've found it is one of the best first poems to introduce to a child, and when I sing the tune from the composition on our Funkey Rhymes CD, it also grips Culturetot, so it is a great one to share together. Charlotte Voake's illustrations are simple yet dynamic. They convey movement, lightheartedness and a splash of childhood joy. I love how they look like watercolours and you can see some of the brushstrokes - a great inspiration for budding artists to emulate. Donaldson's sequel The Further Adventures of the Owl and The Pussy-Cat is also illustrated by Voake, and with Donaldson's seemingly effortless genius with rhyme, the tale continues in seamless form with the honeymoon of the unlikely couple. Following the loss of their wedding ring, the two are thrust on new adventures where they meet many others of Lear's colourful creations - The Pobble who has no toes, the Chankly Bore, even the Jumblies. It's brilliant. A wonderful Christmas gift for any child (the sequel even comes with a CD of Donaldson narrating the poem).

Sixth, a scrummy compilation of six sweet tales about animals and friendship. I adore Usborne books and due to their size and shape, bold and engaging illustrations and simple writing, Culturebaby is drawn to their early reader books again and again. She always heads for them in the library, loves the little comprehension puzzles in the back, and we've just bought this set to start her off on her reading journey. Cow takes a bow and other tales, illustrated by Fred Blunt, majors on the introduction of phonics through emphasising the sounds of letters or combinations of letters which form words. Schools use this method these days and so I'm hoping to learn more about it myself in advance and start to practice with Culturebaby. For now we'll read the endearing, rhyming stories together and practice some of the sounds and see what they look like, and I imagine this book will then have a second life when she starts to read for herself. With its clear text and economic use of words, it will be a perfect early choice.

Given that we already count Gorilla and My Dad amongst our favourites, Culturebaby found a copy of Anthony Browne's classic tale of Willy the Wimp at the library a few weeks ago and promptly fell in love with it. Following numerous renewals and readings in the last couple of weeks Culturebaby still laughs out loud with every reading and was ecstatic when, with impeccable timing when we could renew the book no longer, the 30th Anniversary edition dropped on our doormat. Willy is a sweet chimp who is fed up with the neighbourhood bullies and wants to learn to stand up for himself. He sets himself a punishing regime and becomes larger and stronger. Appearances are deceptive of course because behind it all, he's still the apologetic and kind chap he always was, but now at least he can look after his friends. We were also delighted to find that there are further titles available about the lovable chimp. To celebrate his 30th birthday, Willy takes us on new adventures through some of his favourite doors in Willy's Stories. As he steps weekly into his local library, he is catapulted into a host of exciting books. We are treated to tit-bits of a range of classics as Willy comes face to face with a mutinous crew, Captain Hook and Friar Tuck. He flies over the rainbow, falls down the rabbit hole and even ends up in the belly of a whale. Culturebaby loved hearing about Willy's forays into tales she recognised and this clever book served as an incentive for us to ensure we read the others. Anthony Browne talks in the video below about how in many ways over the years he has realised Willy is rather like him, or indeed like all of us, and in this particular book he includes many of the books which inspired him to become an author and illustrator. The library of course was a place of dreams. His sumptuous pictures are painted in gouache and are completely gorgeous.

 Mouse House Tales Page 01Peek A Boo CvrIts A Firefly Night CvrNext a selection of three lovely titles from American Publisher Blue Apple. First a cute little board book Peek-A-Boo Who? By Simms Tabak is a really colourful and vibrant little introduction to a host of animals. Toddlers are invited to view a cut out silhouette of a creature's shape through which they can see part of their markings. They can then lift the flap and uncover the illustration below. It is simple and effective. Then the stunningly illustrated It's a Firefly Night by Dianne Ochiltree and Betsy Snyder. We don't really experience fireflies where we live but it is still wonderful for Culturebaby to learn about them. The book had a great rhyming tale about the importance of being gentle with creatures and (if we examine them) to always put them back carefully. They are not ours; they are free. There are fascinating facts at the back of the book and the illustrations are both sweet and have a really unusual depth and luminosity to them. Culturebaby really loved this little book. Finally, another surprise hit was the chapter book meets picture book Mouse House Tales by Susan Pearson and Amanda Shepherd. Culturebaby has requested this book again and again. I can see why; the illustrations are adorable, the pages feel of high quality and the stories are simple tales of friendship - first of a set of woodland friends who help mouse to build a new home, and then a tale of kindness in return where mouse takes in a homeless rodent and shares what she has with him. Amongst all the helpfulness there is a continuous humorous interlude provided by a cheese-obsessed goat, which makes Culturebaby chuckle every time. My only bug-bear is the erratic vascilation between rhyming and non-rhyming text but the stories certainly make up for it.
Finally, we were sent a quirky and creative little book from Madeleine Rogers. Her Jungle Crew contains both a story and five paper animals and scenery to make. The dust cover comes off to double up on the inside as a jungle backdrop. It's so stunning I'm wrapping this one for Culturebaby for Christmas. The illustrations feel like an eye catching melting pot of cartoon illustration, african textile design and a dash of inspiration from Rousseau. The rhyming text is catchy and introduces five jungle animals with a few facts about them. It's a beautifully made book and would make a quality gift.

Disclaimer: We were sent the final selection of books I mentioned for review purposes. I only review books I like and all opinions are as always my own. Many thanks also to Asobi Toys UK who provided the wonderful Pets Megatoob for our autumn basket. All other materials are our own.

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