Category Archives: Unsolicited Review

World Book Day 2014 £1 Picture Books

World Book Day 2014 Picture Books

It’s (UK) World Book Day on Thursday, and as always there are a wonderful selection of £1 books available. You can see the full range on the World Book Day website.

I love the concept of £1 books. We generally use the £1 vouchers that Mighty Girl and Danger Girl get from school against other books, and buy a selection of the £1 range too. The very first WBD £1 book I ever bought was a Garth Nix, Creature in the Case, which was before I’d even heard of World Book Day (or had children…) The first one I waited for was Neil Gaiman’s Odd and the Frost Giants (MG was a year old, DG didn’t exist…)

All that is entirely irrelevant, but is slight background as to how I skipped (not literally) into my local indie bookshop (Mostly Books) on Friday to grab this year’s picture book selection.

Hello, Hugless Douglas is a half-pint-sized morsel of Douglas’ world packed with favourite characters from the books (rabbit, the sheep, the funny bunnies – they’ll be staring in their own board books later in the year) following Douglas through his day from waking up to going to bed. Small it may be, lacking in detail it is not. Full of Mr Melling’s wit and humour, and with a couple of new hugs in the included ‘hug gallery’ at the back, this is an essential purchase for all toddlers, pre-schoolers (and mums, dads…) Grab a handful and stash them everywhere: perfect amusement for mornings, lunchtimes, bus journeys, waiting rooms, and snuggling up for bedtimes full of hugs.

Emily Gravett’s Little Book Day Parade is an interactive mini-book encouraging children to grab some colouring in materials and help create the dressing up costumes for a variety of familiar Emily Gravett characters. The pictures are too lovely to draw over, so it’s a good thing these are only £1 and I you can buy some more… Great for filling in moments of boredom – just add crayons, pencils, pens…

Both books would also be excellent party bag fillers – a Hugless Douglas party or a Dressing-Up party, which would you prefer?

Please support your local independent bookseller on World Book Day this year, and don’t forget they take on the full cost of the WBD vouchers so buy as many books as you can afford. There are now less than 1000 independent bookshops left in the UK, it would be a tragedy if we lost any more.

The Hounds of the Morrigan by Pat O’Shea

The Hounds of the Morrigan: Pat O'Shea (Oxford University Press, 1985)The Hounds of the Morrigan: Pat O’Shea (Oxford University Press, 1985)

It was with a little trepidation that I started to re-read this book. I first read it aged 12 (my copy is a Puffin paperback, dated 1987) and I’ve lived more than three times longer than when I first read it. Re-reading childhood favourites is a bit hit-and-miss, many of the picture books have been wonderful, but I re-read The Weirdstone of Brisingamen last year and found it too derivative of Lord of the Rings in its magic ring bracelet and quest, that I just didn’t enjoy it enough to want to read The Moon of Gomrath or contemplate Boneland.

I then started re-reading Over Sea, Under Stone but my memory of The Dark is Rising sequence starts with Will and I got confused that the book wasn’t about him. I do still want to re-read those, now I’m prepared for a different story than the one I expected. I am not the me who read and loved these fantasy novels in the late 1980’s aged between ten and fourteen. I am an approaching-forty me with two children and around a quarter century more life experience. It’s a different me who reads my childhood favourites, and I’m approaching them more warily as I don’t want to lose the love I hold for them.

In the case of The Hounds of the Morrigan, I needn’t have worried. Pat O’Shea wove a wonderful tale based in myths and legends and set in the land of my ancestors. Pidge and Brigit are wonderful child characters, both having important parts to play in the narrative. I was surprised at how funny the dialogue is, I hadn’t remembered that. The police sergeant’s experiences especially. Perhaps that’s an adult view of the dialogue, or perhaps I just forgot it was funny too.

I love all the mythology behind The Hounds of the Morrigan, and when I originally read it I think I then read books of Celtic myths and legends. Although I did always love myths and legends as a child, and one of my early memories is of my dad telling me the tale of Cuchulainn and asking me to re-write it. I’m therefore pleased that I still loved this book on re-reading.

For anyone who loves fantasy, myths and legends, and Ireland. Ages approx 9+.

The Black Crow Conspiracy by Christopher Edge

The Black Crow Conspiracy: Christopher Edge (Nosy Crow, 2014)The Black Crow Conspiracy is the last in a trilogy of historical-alternate-history-mystery-horror-paranormal tales that started with Twelve Minutes to Midnight, and continued with Shadows of the Silver Screen. Although I commented that the first two books started more slowly (which is not a negative), this is not the case for The Black Crow Conspiracy which starts with glowing phantasms stealing the Crown Jewels within the first few pages.

Two years have passed since Shadows of the Silver Screen, and Penelope Tredwell is now nearly sixteen and suffering writer’s block. Sales of The Penny Dreadful have fallen without Montgomery Flinch’s stories and things are looking bleak until Penny hits on the idea of asking the public for plot ideas, as a competition.

Little does Penny know that the ‘fake confession’ she uses as the basis for a thrilling tale turns out to be real, and before she knows it Montgomery Flinch has been arrested for treason. This starts a thrilling hunt for the real Black Crow, with a backdrop of Edward VII’s coronation, stolen Crown Jewels, missing royalty, hints of the First World War, and state-of-the-art science.

The radiant boys come straight from a 1950’s B-movie. It would give too much away to say how they fit into the plot, but it’s a fun idea used to great effect and tinged with the mild horror you’d expect from a Penelope Tredwell novel.

Our heroine is back to full force after being slightly weakened in Shadows of the Silver Screen, and all the supporting cast are all included, but this is very much Penelope’s story. This is the last of the trilogy, something that you can guess from the last chapter, but there’s plenty of scope for more tales to fill the two years between Shadows and Black Crow if the author chooses to return to this world.

I am very fond of the Twelve Minutes to Midnight trilogy. One of the things that particularly appeals to me is that they are stories with a female protagonist which can appeal to boys and girls equally. There is much written about how boys will only read books about boys, whereas girls will read either, used as an excuse for main characters being predominantly male.

Even if this is true, Penelope Tredwell is a character who transcends stereotypes. She is absolutely female, not a male part with a girl’s name tacked on, and deals with the prejudices of her time because of this. The plots aren’t stereotypical either, and don’t fit a single genre so have wide appeal.

The alternative-history theme is a gateway to discovering more about the times written about, and the use of real-life historical figures gives a starting block for those discoveries. As my daughters are only six and four, these are not books for them to read yet, but I will be keeping ‘my’ copies to pass on and can’t wait to find out what inspiration they will give.

Gifts for Curious Children

All children are born explorers, engineers and investigators. Here are a selection of books for curious children to feed their need for discovery, all of which would make excellent gifts.

Alphasaurs, and other Prehistoric Types: Sharon Werner & Sarah Forss (Blue Apple Books, 2012)Alphasaurs, and other Prehistoric Types: Sharon Werner & Sarah Forss (Blue Apple Books, 2012)
There are so many dinosaur books for dino fans, but this one is particularly good for curious children due to the unique illustrations. Each dinosaur is made out of a single letter, in a variety of fonts. This could potentially encourage reluctant writers to have a go at letter formation, but also introduces a world of design – can your child design their own book or magazine using just letters? There are plenty of large flaps to keep interest and a plethora of bitesize dino facts. Our full review can be found here. The same team also created Alphabeasties and Bugs By The Numbers, for your animal loving explorers.

The What on Earth Wallbook: Christopher Lloyd & Andy Forshaw (What on Earth Publishing, 2010)The What on Earth Wallbook: Christopher Lloyd & Andy Forshaw (What on Earth Publishing, 2010)
What on Earth Happened? by Christopher Lloyd is a chunky tome that tells the known history of the planet from creation, through prehistoric eras, to people and world history. The Wallbook is based on this, and is a huge elongated poster packed with illustrations of events across history, that can either be hung on a wall or left in ‘book’ form to pore over and discover interesting snippets that can start a conversation or a project. It has its faults, but is an ambitious idea to try to cover the world in one narrative and the Wallbook is great fun to browse through.

The Story of Things: Neal Layton (Hodder Children's Books, 2009)The Story of Things: Neal Layton (Hodder Children’s Books, 2009)
This is such a fun book! It takes us through a history of ‘things’ from cavepeople who had no possessions, to developing civilisations (I love the page which is of a desert, with four hidden pop-ups of civilisations that came and went, such a clever illustration of the concept), to industry and modern day electronics. There are so many things to lift and pull and peek under that you barely realise that this is actually a history book. Some of the pop-ups are a little flimsy (or maybe that’s just my copy), so it’s not one for heavy handed toddlers, but fixing the odd break is a good engineering skill for the reader too! There are two other books in the series too: The Story of Everything, and The Story of Stars. Excellent fun.

Barefoot Books World Atlas: Nick Crane & David DeanBarefoot Books World Atlas: Nick Crane & David Dean
This really is the perfect primary-age atlas which not only gives an overview of the shape of the world and its countries but covers important information for each continent (or part continent, as some are split) under the headings Physical Features; People and Places; Climate and Weather; Land Use and Natural Resources; Environment; Wildlife; and Transport. Capital cities are clearly marked on the maps and they’re also full of images from the countries to give a sense of the diversity in the world. Lift-up flaps give more ‘did you know?’ facts of historical significance. Not only useful for homework projects, the accessible text and interesting layouts (with something to lift on every page) are likely to have children pouring through this just for fun (and learning lots about the world along the way!) There’s also a world poster in a pocket on the back page for displaying on the wall if wanted. Written in 2011, this is an up-to-date introduction to continents, countries and cultures for a modern audience. Did you know that the Mount Rushmore sculptures took 14 years to complete, The Great Wall of China isn’t visible from the moon, Rubik’s cubes were invented by a Hungarian sculptor, and the keel-billed toucan is the national bird of Belize? You would if you had this Atlas 😉

Maps: Aleksandra Mizieli?ska & Daniel Mizieli?ski (Big Picture Press, 2013)Maps: Aleksandra Mizielieska & Daniel Mizielieski (Big Picture Press, 2013)
This book is HUGE. It is also utterly beautiful and worth every penny of its £20 price tag. Writing about it can’t possibly do it justice. You can view a sneak peak in the video at the end of this list but it’s really one to get in real life and spend hours and hours pouring over. On a simple level, it is literally a book full of maps. It can’t cover the entire world, so there are huge swathes of countries that have been missed out (Maps 2 maybe?!) but each country that is included has been illustrated with a host of national facts: significant buildings, native animals, examples of popular boy and girl names, food, work, historical figures… Major or important cities are marked, and there is a list of capital, languages, population and area. The text is minimal, on the whole it is there to label the illustrations and yet Maps still managed to be packed full of facts. It’s not an Atlas, and doesn’t pretend to be. It is unique, beautiful, and perfect for curious children (and grown-ups).

Ocean Deep: Richard Hatfield (Child's Play, 2011)Ocean Deep: Richard Hatfield (Child’s Play, 2011)
This is a beautifully illustrated exploration into every part of the ocean from rock pools to the deepest depths. The sturdy card pages make this suitable even from early ages, and all ages can appreciate the illustrations before reading the labels to learn all the names, and the text to find out more about the ocean. Each page is cut so you can see further pages into the book, so it feels like you are diving deeper and deeper into the ocean. The design also gives lots for little hands to explore, and the entire book can be displayed on a surface due to the concertina pages. Another one that needs to be seen in real life to be appreciated, full of facts, and some really creepy critters the deeper down you go…

Metamorphoses: Egg Tadpole Frog (Child's Play, 2006)Metamorphoses: Egg Tadpole Frog (Child’s Play, 2006)

This is a(nother) brilliantly clever book from Child’s Play. The shaped cover is tied with ribbon, and inside you find the life cycle story of frogs (Butterflies and Dragonflies are covered in other titles in this series.) This can be read as a book, with very clear and simple text, and pages that sort-of pop up. But… open it up and you have another table display of the entire life cycle with sticking out bits, and… Oh, you just have to see this in real life again, it’s just brilliant! I didn’t hold it very well (one-handed) in the video below but it gives you a rough idea. It really is brilliant, and perfect for young explorers. The back of the pages shown are illustrated with various frog species. The pages are strong card so will withstand lots of play too.


snowrolypolySnow Roly Poly Box Book: Kees Moerbeek (Child’s Play, 2008)

Child’s Play are definitely getting my thumbs up and full marks for ingenuity for books to entice even the most uninterested-in-books child. There are currently a dozen roly poly box books to choose from, but Snow is perfect for this time of year (in the Northern Hemisphere at least!) It looks like a cube, but pull the arrow on the outside and up pops and owl. follow the arrows and you unfurl a whole host of snow-loving creatures from across the globe. And it’s just as easy to roll back up again too. This is the least book-looking book you’re likely to find! Great for small people to explore.

headoverheelsgymnasticsBoys & Girls Floor Skills: Gemma Coles (Head Over Heels About Gymnastics, 2013)
I have occasional bug bears with independently published books, especially when cost cutting results in a flimsy and unattractive paper book, but it’s clear that careful thought has been put into both use and content with this beautifully produced guide. With a spiral spine, and the ability to stand upright, this book can be used whilst practising the skills inside. The clear, real-world, photographs illustrate gymnastic skills in easy to follow steps from simple to complex. It can’t replace hands on tuition, but it’s been giving my extremely active climbs-the-walls six year old a lot of new fun things to try. I especially love how it is aimed at boys and girls, and the pictures have a boy and girl equally illustrating the skills. For any child with an interest in gymnastics, this would be an excellent starting point before (or as well as) proper tuition. Check out the Head Over Heels About Gymnastics website for a discount on this clear and well produced guide.

How Many?: Ron Van Der Meer (Random House Children's Books, 2007) How Many?: Ron Van Der Meer (Random House Children’s Books, 2007)
When I was searching for pop-up books a couple of years ago, Ron Van Der Meer was recommended and I found How Many? in a discount store. It is full of complex pop-up sculptures in bright colours and geometric shapes. The text asks you to count shapes, colours, lines… or you can just marvel at the complex sculptures. This is definitely not for small children without supervision, as the detailed pop-ups are delicate. It appears to be out of print, although you can get used copies online. Whilst searching for a replacement to write about I discovered this newly reissued Interactive Art Book reviewed at The Little Wooden Horse, which although it doesn’t quite replace the mathematical side of How Many?, does showcase paper engineering skill and artistry.

Because these are all very interactive books, I made this brief video whizzing through a few pages of each to give a taster of what they’re like. They are all much nicer in real life. (The video is soundless)


Disclosure: Alphasaurs, The Story of Things, Ocean Deep, Egg Tadpole Frog, Snow, and Gymnastics Floor Skills were sent to us by their respective publishers for review. All other books were purchased or borrowed independently. Barefoot Books links are affiliate links. No other financial reward was given and the opinions are my own. I was not asked to write this post.

Fortunately, The Milk by Neil Gaiman, Chris Riddell, and Skottie Young

Books published on either side of the Atlantic (which for purposes of simplicity, I’ll refer to as US and UK) are often subtly different. They may have different publishers; the covers may vary; they almost certainly will have different editors and there may be changes in text due to cultural differences.

I’ve never felt the need to buy US and UK editions of a single book before, even other novels with different illustrators, but Fortunately, The Milk is a highly illustrated text and I was so torn between both Chris Riddell’s and Skottie Young’s illustrations based on the front cover that I couldn’t choose between them.

So I bought both.

This post is a comparison of the US and UK versions of Fortunately, The Milk. I’m not aiming to review the book and I’m assuming that you’ve either already read one version, or that you don’t mind being spoilered. If you don’t want to read spoilers, bookmark here and go read the book first.

UK readers can order either version from Foyles.

Outside Appearances

Fortunately, The Milk by Neil Gaiman, Chris Riddell & Skottie Young (Bloomsbury Children's Books UK, Harper US)The US edition is a subtler, slimmer tome with matt cover and a white hardback underneath. The UK edition has a red hardback and the cover is shiny and bright. The UK edition is on the Bloomsbury website under the age band 7-9. The US edition states the age band 8-12.

The UK edition is slightly wider, and slightly shorter than the US. It is also slightly thicker with 166 pages (146 for story, 20 for dedication, copyright and extras) compared to 128 pages in the US edition (114 for story, 14 other). This is mainly due to font size, which is bigger in the UK edition, although there are also some paragraph differences and the UK edition has ‘extras’ that the US doesn’t.

For the UK edition, Gaiman is described as RIDICULOUSLY BESTSELLING AUTHOR, whereas he’s merely a New York Times Bestselling Author in the US.

The back flyleaf description of Gaiman is subtly different. They both mention that he won both the Newbery and Carnegie for The Graveyard Book, but the US edition points out which is the US award and which the UK. The UK version mentions Doctor Who and Stardust; whereas the US edition mentions that he is from England but now lives in the US. Riddell and Young’s write-ups are completely different, on account of being completely different people.

The First Page

Fortunately, The Milk: First page
In Riddell’s version we see the narrator looking into the fridge and in that one image the entire book is set up – the hot air balloon, aliens, pirates, dinosaurs, ponies, vampires, volcano, all are in this image.

Young gives us the fridge-eye view of the narrator finding nothing in the fridge for his Toastios.

You can also see that the first page of text in the US edition is already 21 words longer than the UK version.


Chris Riddell’s characters have a more realistic feel to them (in as much as globulous aliens, volcano gods, and vampires can be realistic) and Skottie Young’s are more cartoonish. Riddell appears to have followed the text more closely in his illustrations. For example his aliens are all globby, where Young’s are more varied, and his dwarves have beards (text difference UK p128; US p98.)

Riddell’s time travel machine also actually looks like a cardboard box with gemstones stuck on it, but Young does the best teeth (the shark on US p24 especially). Young’s vampires are all utterly terrifying with their teeth, but Riddell has an especially chilling Nosferwatu.

Riddell depicts the dad very obviously as Gaiman, although Young’s scruffy haired dad may well be Gaiman too.

Fortunately, The Milk: The Dad
In the UK edition there are 23 pages containing only images (excluding extra pages), and 28 in the US edition. The UK version has 30 pages with text only, compared to 11 in the US. The other pages are a mixture of text and images. The US edition appears to have more frequent, smaller, images compared to the UK and has no double-page spreads without any illustration (apart from one which has white text on a black background and could therefore be considered illustrated).

The UK edition has four double-page spreads without illustrations, although two of these are white text on a black background. However, the UK edition has extra pages of character illustrations and, more significantly, a fold out colour four-page spread picture hidden in the middle.

There is an ending to Fortunately, The Milk that can only been seen in the illustrations. Young’s illustration very obviously points it out; I didn’t actually realise the significance in the UK edition until I’d read the US one, although in retrospect it’s obvious in a different way and I was just being a bit slow! I won’t spoil what that is though, you’ll need to read (either version) to find out.

Text Differences

There are several subtle word changes between the two versions, but one cultural difference that I was surprised not to find was the use of ‘mum’ in both versions. I expected ‘mom’ in the US edition but it’s not used.

A subtle cultural difference that is only apparent in the illustrations is that of the milk. In the UK the milk is in a tetrapak, the US milk is shown as a bottle.

To me, a gondola is a type of boat, one that you’d probably find in Venice. On a trip to Canada I was not keen on the idea of a ‘gondola ride’ because I don’t like boats, but it turned out to be what I’d call a cable-car. In the UK, the container for people that hangs under a hot-air balloon is called a basket. In Fortunately, The Milk, the balloon basket is mentioned on at least six occasions. In the US edition, it’s called a gondola on only two of these occasions (the rest of the time it’s a basket.)

The table below contains the wording (and some punctuation) changes I found. I almost certainly missed some, as I compiled this list by reading both versions simultaneously, a few pages at a time.

UK edition

US edition


house key




Now dad came into the kitchen.


Now dad came in.


He had his ‘no tea’ face on.


He had his “no tea” face.


Not skimmed.


Not the fat-free kind.


said my dad


said my father


“Who be ye, landlubber?” asked the woman…


“Who be ye, landlubber?” said the woman…


I’d just been to…


I just set out to…


At the corner of…


On the corner of…


…it was safer just to get…


…it was safer just to have…


 …just like ours, appeared over by…


…just like ours, appeared, over by…




hot air


…the side of the basket…


…the side of the gondola…


embroidered cushions




southern hemisphere


Southern Hemisphere


They had purple skin and orange beards, and…


They had purple skin and…


…into the basket of her balloon…


…into the gondola of her balloon…

Fonts and Paragraphs

This is one of the most interesting (to me) differences between the two versions. There are too many differences for me to list every single one. The US edition uses a larger variety of fonts, and accentuates words and phrases far more than the UK edition. This makes the text more interesting, and helps with intonation when reading, but also makes the text itself harder to read for newer readers and may explain the age band differences in the UK and US editions.

The UK edition only uses two different fonts: one for the main story that the child narrator is telling, and one for the dad’s story. Therefore the interruptions to the story from the children are in the same font as the book started with. The dad’s story is also enclosed in quotes.

In the US edition, when the dad’s story starts it is not separated from the rest of the text by quotes or font changes. However, whilst the story is being told, any interruptions from the children (and answers from the father) are shown in completely different fonts.

Fortunately, The Milk: interruption
The UK edition uses illustrations for the warning signs in the alien spaceship, whereas the US edition uses interesting fonts. This does mean, to take a random example, that if you’re given a text-only proof to read some sense is lost because the illustrations contain part of the text.

Considering the US edition makes such good use of different fonts and emphasis, there are several places where it misses a trick. The start of the dad’s story (UK p16; US p11) feels to me like it should be the dad making a point, and the UK edition has this in capitals: “I BOUGHT THE MILK.” On first confronting Professor Steg (UK p36; US p26), the UK edition puts “You’re a Stegosaurus” in larger text, but there’s no emphasis in the US edition.

The second time the dad is kidnapped by aliens (UK p95; US p70), Professor Steg’s interrupted speech is shown as “…travelling companiAARRGH” with the letters getting larger, but again no emphasis in the US edition. The UK edition also has EYE OF SPLOD in capitals throughout, which isn’t in the US edition.

The UK edition uses black pages with white text more, with seven pages compared to the US edition’s two. White on black is used to emphasise the time travel overshoot in the UK edition (p76/77), which is almost entirely sidelined in the US version (p51/52).

There are other occasions where the UK edition has emphasis and the US doesn’t but on the whole, the US edition has far more emphasis in the text using different fonts, weights and sizes.

Astonishingly, there is actually one page where both the US and UK editions contain exactly the same words (UK p96; US p72).


I think it’s fairly obvious that I am a fan. I’m glad we have both versions, and we’ll treasure them both but (probably because I’m a UK citizen and more used to the UK way of doing things) the UK version has the slight edge for me, although the larger font size may put off older readers.

I love Skottie Young’s illustrations but it’s the rest of the US edition package that is less appealing, mainly due to inconsistencies in how the text was treated – although to be fair, I was reading analytically and I doubt there are that many people who will be bothered by things like ‘the milk‘ being inconsistently emphasised in the text.

I’ve read the story to my daughters (aged six and four) a few times, and the six-year-old has read chunks of the book independently. In fact she pointed out some of the wording differences, just from reading the two versions, before I started to look for them! My eldest is fascinated with the idea of the same book being different.

The story is the same regardless of version, and it comes down to a matter of taste (or availability) to which version to read. Fortunately, The Milk is mad, funny, and works for a wide age range.

All the above comments refer to the standard hardback editions of Fortunately, The Milk published in the UK by Bloomsbury Children’s Books, and in the US by Harper (part of HarperCollins Children’s Books) in September 2013.

Anna Hibiscus

Anna Hibiscus: Atinuke & Lauren Tobia (Walker Books)
There are currently seven Anna Hibiscus books published – two picture books and five chapter books – with at least one more chapter book in the works. They are all wonderful and I can’t praise them highly enough.

Atinuke wrote the stories because she found that in the UK children weren’t aware of the Africa she grew up in; the affluent business Africa of big cities and business deals full of traditions and family customs. So she wrote about Anna Hibiscus, who has an African father and a Canadian mother, and her adventures in a middle class African home. Atinuke is from Nigeria, but she chose to write about Amazing Africa rather than a specific country.

Lauren Tobia illustrates these books with warmth and humour and makes you feel like you are in Africa with Anna and her family. The illustrations are spot on and essential to help children who don’t come from this culture to visualise the world Anna is growing up in.

The chapter books are lovely for emerging readers, being short enough for early readers but with enough interest and layers to work for older readers too. Each book contains four separate stories, which can be read as individual stories, but also builds up into a longer tale. For example at the end of book one Anna discovers she can visit her Granny in Canada; in book three she shops for winter clothes; book four is the Canada visit; and book five contains her return.

There are many other stories contained in these books as well. These cover Anna’s brushes with the poverty that exists in the city side-by-side with the more affluent world she inhabits; lots of family love and excitement; the horrors of hair brushing and more!

Anna lives with all her family in one house: parents, grandparents, cousins, aunties and uncles. She has cousins called Benz, Wonderful, Chocolate, Thank-God, Sociable, Joy, Clarity, and Common Sense; and twin brothers called Double and Trouble. This quote from the first Anna Hibiscus chapter book gives an explanation of the names by way of a conversation between an Auntie returning to America and talking to Anna’s grandparents:

“Welcome, Comfort!” Grandfather said.
“Thank-you, Father,” Auntie Comfort replied. “But I am now called Yemisi.”
“Why?” said Grandmother. “What is wrong with Comfort?”
“I wanted to have an African name, Mama,” said Auntie Comfort.
The aunties started to laugh.
“Comfort is an African name,” said Grandmother.
“But it is an English word, Mama,” said Auntie Comfort.
“It is an English word, but an African name,” said Grandfather. “Have you ever heard of any English person being called Comfort?”

The importance of family and caring for people is deeply rooted in all the stories, which can be enjoyed by all ages. The chapter books are lovely read-alouds for younger children but there are also the two picture books.

Image from Anna Hibiscus' Song (Atinuke & Lauren Tobia)

In Anna Hibiscus’ Song, Anna is full of so much happiness but she doesn’t know how to express it. She asks her family, who tell her all the different things that they do when they are happy, and then discovers her own way, which is to sing. A wonderful book full of joy, and also good for helping children find ways of dealing with all the big emotions that come along. We try to help small children with emotions like sadness, fear, and anger; but happiness is big too and deserves attention.

In Splash, Anna Hibiscus, the family have gone to the beach. Anna wants to splash in the waves but all of her family is too busy. She wants to splash with somebody, but the pull of the waves gets her splashing and giggling, which fills all her family with joy too.

I love this double page spread especially, it perfectly captures the feeling of aloneness:

Image from Splash, Anna Hibiscus (Atinuke & Lauren Tobia)

But soon after, Anna is joined by her family and this spread captures family togetherness and joy:

Image from Splash, Anna Hibiscus (Atinuke & Lauren Tobia)

There are so many reasons to love the Anna Hibiscus books as wonderful stories with beautiful illustrations; but the inclusion of a mixed-race family and unfamiliar cultural setting (for the UK) make these important books to share with every child.

If you’ve not read any before and you’re not sure which one to start with, I recommend Splash, Anna Hibiscus for toddlers & up and Anna Hibiscus for pre-schoolers & up; but once you’ve read those, you’ll want to read them all. We all love amazing Anna Hibiscus here, and we hope you will too.

You can read an interview with Atinuke at Playing by the Book, and I recommend watching the videos there too. You can see more of Lauren Tobia’s gorgeous artwork on her website.

Disclaimer: We were sent a copy of Splash, Anna Hibiscus! by Lauren Tobia for review, but had already bought the other Anna Hibiscus books independently. No other financial reward was given and the opinions are my own. I was not asked to write this post.

Fables and Reflections: 10 Traditional Tales Retold

After talking about retelling fables, I’d like to share a very small selection of some of the traditional and modern versions we have on our bookshelves. Many of these are recently published, but I’ve added a few extra that I haven’t reviewed yet. You can find more I’ve already reviewed by clicking here for the Fables tag.

The Emperor's Nightingale and Other Feathery Tales (The Story Collector 1): Jane Ray (Boxer Books, 2013)The Emperor’s Nightingale and Other Feathery Tales (The Story Collector 1): Jane Ray (Boxer Books, 2013)
If you’ve any interest in children’s literature, just put this on top of your Christmas list straight away. Or treat yourself now. Or use the children as an excuse. This will make a lovely gift for any child person. The stories are perfect for reading aloud but even fairly early reader’s can attempt the easily laid out text (although the words may be challenging.) This is the first in a series of tales collected by the enormously talented Jane Ray and illustrated using scraperfoil techniques. It is a gorgeous book and only priced at £12.99. A mix of retold stories and collected poetry, this book deserves its own blog post. It is an example of traditional done well, with stories suitable for all ages. All the tales in this collection are linked by feathered friends and include traditional tales from across the globe. (Source: review copy)

whatsthetimemrwolfWhat’s the Time, Mr Wolf?: Debi Gliori (Bloomsbury Children’s Books, 2012)
Technically not a retelling at all, but packed full of familiar characters following Mr Wolf’s day. Most children are familiar with the “What’s the Time, Mr Wolf?” game and the repeatedly asked question leads us through the day from 7am when Mr Wolf is woken by four and twenty blackbirds (“It’s time for blackbird pie,”) and sleepily wakes up and gets chores done in time for… Ah, that would be telling. Featuring three little pig neighbours (who slam their doors – “It’s time for bacon sandwiches,” (I feel like that most mornings when woken too early, and thankfully this Mr Wolf is a nice wolf when he isn’t being annoyed by naughty neighbours!) Gorgeously illustrated with Debi Gliori’s recognisable style, a humourous and happy story for toddlers and up. I’ve lost count how many times we’ve read it. What’s the time, Mr Wolf? Time to buy more books… (Source: review copy)

Beauty and the Beast: Ursula Jones & Sarah Gibb (Orchard Books, 2013)Beauty and the Beast: Ursula Jones & Sarah Gibb (Orchard Books, 2013)
The illustrations for this traditional retelling of Beauty and the Beast are exquisite. A mix of silhouettes and washes of colour, with gold foiled cover, this is a book to be cherished for its beauty and every detailed poured over. DG (4) certainly thinks so and requests the story night after night, and it’s a wordy book but she listens raptly all the way through and asks again (tomorrow, it’s a bit too long to read twice in a row…) I have some issues with the retelling. It is traditional, and there is a lot of focus on the sisters only being interested in gaining husbands, and new dresses every day being a highlight of Beauty’s stay in the Beast’s house. Beauty is also frequently described as stupid. It is, however, the most complete picture book retelling I’ve read. This Beast is not a Disney-fied softy but there is real horror in his appearance and the “ear-crunching noise” that accompanies his arrival. This really is a stunning, traditional retelling and deserves its place on any child’s bookshelves. (Source: review copy)

Goldilocks and Just the One Bear: Leigh Hodgkinson (Nosy Crow, 2012)Goldilocks and Just the One Bear: Leigh Hodgkinson (Nosy Crow, 2012)
Another modern tale and not quite a retelling of Goldilocks but to say much more would give too much away. “Once upon a time, there was this bear…” and so begins a story  of a bear finding himself in a big city and accidentally entering an apartment. There he tries to find some porridge, but the soggy, crunchy and dry “porridge” that he finds aren’t quite right (hilariously illustrated, you just have to get this book to see!) The same happens with the chairs, and the beds… The Daddy, Mummy and little persons who come across the mess left by the bear aren’t very amused, but the wonderfully satisfactory conclusion perfectly ends this familiar-sounding tale. Funny, stunningly illustrated, and a perfect addition to any bookshelf, I can’t recommend Goldilocks and Just the One Bear highly enough. (Source: own copy)

The Girl With A Brave Heart, A Tale From Tehran: Rita Jahanforuz & Vali Mintzi (Barefoot Books, 2013) The Girl With A Brave Heart, A Tale From Tehran: Rita Jahanforuz & Vali Mintzi (Barefoot Books, 2013)
This is a traditional tale that I had no previous knowledge of. It starts in a Cinderalla-like way; Shiraz’s mother dies young and her father remarries but after he too dies, her life changes from one of happiness to drudgery as the step-mother and step-sister make her their maid. Unlike Cinderella, no prince is required for a happy ending. Shiraz loses a ball of wall off her balcony, precious to her because it was her mother’s, and goes to the house whose garden it dropped in. The lady living here appears to be an unkindly witch and sets three tasks, which Shiraz gladly completes. Because of Shiraz’s kind heart, and the good that she does, it appears that the old women gives her the gift of beauty. In reality it is Shiraz’s own personality shining through. The step-sister attempts to replicate what Shiraz has done but it backfires because of her selfishness. Beautifully illustrated and with an exotic (to my children) location, this story especially grips MG (6) who listens attentively (she usually wanders off during stories to do other things) and tries to read it herself after. A very positive and non-stereotyped story, this is the perfect antidote to Disney princesses. (Source: review copy)

Little Red Riding Hood: Alison Jay (Templar Publishing, 2013)Little Red Riding Hood: Alison Jay (Templar Publishing, 2013)
This is another huge success in our household, and has torn pages to show for how much its been read (sniffles!) Here we find Fairytale Village, where all the fairy tale characters live. Little Red Riding Hood’s mother runs the tea shop and sends our heroine with some treats to see her grandmother. But, oh, the illustrations! They tell the story and more. Starting in the tea shop, there’s Hansel buying a loaf of bread, the Frog Prince gloomily drinking a cup of tea, Rapunzel and the Gingerbread man chatting, Three Little Pigs munching cakes, and who’s that shifty looking character in dark glasses and a trenchcoat pretending to choose jam? MG (6) was the one who pointed out to me that the wolf appears on every single double page of the book, if you look carefully, and she’s right. The backgrounds of the illustrations tell too many stories to mention: Jack taking his cow to market, Hansel and Gretel going for a walk… The Hansel and Gretel tale plays out throughout the entire book, and we regularly see the woodcutter keeping an eye on Little Red Riding Hood too. Which brings me to my only grumble with the story. Despite the mostly modern retelling (the wolf locks grandma in a cupboard instead of eating her, and is sent to a school for naughty fairytale creatures at the end), this retelling doesn’t take the opportunity for Little Red Riding Hood to be resourceful and work her own escape, she is a passive traveller in the tale and the story just happens to her. I do wonder about Grandma too, she lives next door to the gingerbread house, didn’t she notice what was happening to the children there? Apparently I’m reading too much into this! The book really sucks you into the fairytale world and is wonderful for reading again and again. I do hope there will be more stories in this series and thoroughly recommend this version. (Source: review copy)

The Lion and the Mouse: Nahta Noj (Templar Publishing, 2013)The Lion and the Mouse: Nahta Noj & Jenny Broom (Templar Publishing, 2013)
This is a very clever book. Cut-outs in the pages mean that what you think is part of a butterfly’s wing on one page, becomes a lion’s eye on the next; plants on one page become footprints on the next… The art style is simple enough to encourage small children to try making animals with paper collage, and complex enough to hold interest throughout. This is a beautifully illustrated and designed book and for that I think the designer, Jonathan Lambert, should be on the front cover too because he has done a superb job. This would make a lovely gift for toddlers and pre-schoolers (and grown ups…) and is full of educational potential as well as being a lovely read aloud. (Source: review copy)

Cinderella: An Art Deco Love Story; Rapunzel: A Groovy Fairy Tale; and Little Red: A Fizzingly Good Yarn retold by Lynn Roberts & illustrated by David Roberts (Pavillion Children's Books, 2001, 2003 & 2005)Cinderella: An Art Deco Love Story; Rapunzel: A Groovy Fairy Tale; and Little Red: A Fizzingly Good Yarn retold by Lynn Roberts & illustrated by David Roberts (Pavillion Children’s Books, 2001, 2003 & 2005)
We love these books so much! David Roberts is one of the best illustrators working today and these three retellings of favourite fairy tales showcase his art beautifully. They are retold by his sister, Lynn, talent obviously running in the family. “In a time not too long ago and in a land much like our own, there lived…” begins each tale. Each has its own era. Cinderella is set in the Art Deco 1920’s/1930’s; Rapunzel in the 1970’s; and Little Red sometime in the 1700’s. They are all thoroughly hilarious with so much to look at in the illustrations that you could just spend hours pouring over them. They are a labour of love, and a must for any fan of fairy tales (or children’s books, or illustration, or humour…) Cinderella follows the most traditional route, with a prince and a ball along with step-mother and step-sisters. How Cinderella ends up with her step-mother is comic genius (a very absent-minded father is involved) and the attention to detail in the pictures is astonishing. We originally borrowed this one from the library but after keeping it for several months I had to buy it and the two others from the series. I am so sad there haven’t been any more since, it looks like plans for the fourth were postponed and I can but hope there are more one day as these are excellent. Rapunzel is set in the 1970’s with a dinner-lady aunt who keeps her long-haired niece on the top floor of a tower block before Roger from the school band finds her. No royalty or weddings in this tale which makes a lovely change, and oh, the ’70’s is so perfectly represented. The illustrator note in this book says he imagined Rapunzel being related to Cinderella somehow so look out in the background for items that appear in both books. Finally, Little Red is set further in the past and Red is gender-swapped to become a boy. I think there should be more gender-swapping in retold tales, it changes the stereotyped interactions into something more interesting in many cases. For instance Princess Rosamund in The Tough Princess finds a sleeping prince to wake. Just wonderful. Little Red does outwit the wolf on his own (now I wish he was female again, but only because of all the other female Reds who have to be saved) and how he gets grandma back after she was swallowed whole should delight almost every child. These three are a delight for children and adults. Humourous, intelligent, and great fun. (Source: own copies)

I would love to include more, because there are so many to write about, but I’m up to almost 2000 words already so this is finished but I’m sure I will write about more retold fables in future.

Disclaimer: We were sent copies of the books labelled review copy by Boxer Books, Bloomsbury Children’s Books, Orchard Books, Barefoot Books (via BritMums Meet Up) and Templar Publishing for review. No other financial reward was given and the opinions are my own. I was not asked to write this post.

Labelling School Clothes

It’s that time of the year where many parents in England and Wales (too late if you’re in Scotland, and I don’t know about Northern Ireland) are frantically ordering last minute school uniform and dreading all the sewing and ironing on of labels.

When Mighty-Girl was a baby I bought a set of sew-on labels for nursery, and diligently sewed them on her clothes for about two days before giving up. Two years ago when she was about to start school full-time I bought a set of iron-on labels, which was utterly pointless as I don’t iron any more than I sew. It appeared the only option for me was biro scrawled in labels and I really hate that option because although it is the cheapest, it completely destroys any potential resale value of clothes.

Then someone suggested easy tags, and I wrote a review about them a while back. This year as I was searching for the applicator to change tags on two school girls’ clothes (and failing to find it, don’t forget I live in utter chaos) I also knew I needed to buy more backs and saw that there’s now a new system for sale: ‘crocodile’ instead of ‘dolphin’.

I cheekily asked to test the new system and they very kindly have posted some to me, which I’ll write a proper review and compare once I’ve received. But because I work last minute, by the time I write that review the new term will have started and at the moment it’s not too late to buy the tags so I want to tell you about them.

I’ve used the dolphin system for two years and the tags look as good as new. They really are so simple to attach and remove, are completely unobtrusive (they probably won’t work for children with sensory processing issues who don’t even like labels, but then nothing would…) and don’t come off no matter how many trees climbed, rugby tackles made or washing machine cycles done. I wouldn’t use anything else now.

There is only one thing that may come as a sticking point, and that’s the starting price. It costs about £19.95 for 25 tags+backs and an applicator (crocodile system), or £14.95 for 25 tags+backs alone. This may seem huge but you only need one set of labels per child, and one applicator per family, for an entire school career. The only thing that will need replacing are the backs.

For us, 25 tags are enough for an entire school year. That will label:
5 polo shirts
5 winter dresses or trousers
5 summer dresses or shorts
3 sweaters / jumpers / cardigans
1 jogging trousers for PE
1 shorts for PE
1 polo top for PE
1 PE sweatshirt
1 coat
1 pair waterproof trousers
1 other item

I even managed to label a pair of plimsoles with them, and have used them on pencil cases and school bags, plus they’d work on swimming costumes and towels. The number of tags you need will depend but for the average primary school, 25 is probably enough.

After that, the only thing you need to buy is replacement backs when a child moves up a clothes size. These are £7.95 for 50 (which should cover two years, or £4.95 for 25).

In comparison, iron-on and sew-on labels appear to be much cheaper. But sew-on labels involve sewing (looking for the needle and thread every year), and fray so will wear out, and can tear out of clothes. Iron-on labels wash out regularly, and fade quickly. It’s unlikely an iron-on label will last an entire year, and definitely cannot be re-used. Plus thin labels are even easier to lose!

For me the extra expense is more than worth it. Sewing and ironing are not my forte and the thought of having to spend hours labelling clothes every term makes me feel quite ill. Easy tags are so quick, easy and fun that children will fight you to can label their own clothes.

I thoroughly recommend budgeting to get easy tags if you can, and this recommendation comes entirely unsolicited. If you order now, they will arrive in time for the start of term. Even if they arrive the day before it’s not a chore to label because it’s so quick.

When I have the crocodile tags I’ll write a proper comparison review and delete this one, but I wanted to get this up in time for the new school year. I am being sent an applicator and one set of tags to review (I paid for a second set on top), but I have not got them yet and I would have written this review regardless.

Why did I get another 25 tags if I think 25 is enough? Well, I really wanted to test the new system to compare. And, um, have you seen how messy my house is? I currently can’t find my applicator and spare tags / backs. Oops. When I find them, I’ll just have more than enough tags for both children for the rest of their lives 😉

Jane Hissey at Mostly Books

Original Jane Hissey Art

I managed to miss out on Jane Hissey‘s books when I was a child, because I was a teen when most of them were first published, but I’ve been aware of the gorgeous art for long before I had children. The Old Bear stories seem older than they actually are (written from 1986 onwards) purely because they have a classic feel like they’ve always existed…

We were lucky enough to review Ruby, Blue and Blanket when it was first released and have a small handful of Old Bear books second-hand but I’m embarrassed to say only a few and I didn’t realise how many different books there are; or that there had been a TV series too!

Hearing that Jane would be visiting our lovely local independent bookstore, Mostly Books, I promptly booked tickets just before two weeks of endless sun in England! I panicked about the heat the day before, but as it turned out although there was rain, which cooled the air down, there was also fortunately no rain during the two (packed) sessions Jane held.

Jane Hissey is as wonderful in real life as you could imagine. Over an hour she emptied an enormous bag full of some of the stars of her books, including Old Bear himself; read three of her stories to the children and shared so many wonderful details about how all the stories were created, illustrated and animated. I missed some of the event because Mighty-Girl had a sore tummy and we needed to find some water (supplied in an instant by Nicki, thank-you!) but still learnt loads.

Jane Hissey, Old Bear and Friends at Mostly Books, Abingdon

Jane started by introducing some of the stars of her books one by one. One of the little girls in the audience was obviously an expert on the stories as she could name all of them. For each toy, Jane told the story behind where it came from and how they inspired her stories. I particularly liked how Hoot was handmade from the sleeve of a coat and that the other sleeve was used to make the model used in the TV series. Jolly Tall arrived in a box which inspired his tale, and many of the toys were handmade for her children.

She said that many of the stories were inspired by the toys themselves. Little Bear’s Trousers came about because she loved Little Bear’s legs and wanted to draw them, so decided to tell the story of how his trousers were lost and found so she could draw his legs! What happened with each toy who borrowed the trousers was easy – she just saw how they would use them (hump warmers, rabbit hat, bone holder!) and then saw what would happen – they would fall over rabbit’s eyes so he’d not be able to see…

One thing I found fascinating was that everything drawn in the books exists (or existed) in real life. In order for Little Bear to wear pyjamas, Jane had to make him some first! She shared a lovely anecdote about the bath picture in Little Bears Trouser’s where it took her two weeks (I think) to draw so her children couldn’t use the bath until it was finished! Each picture is created with coloured pencils and it was a thrill to see some of the original art there too, as well as a mock-up book.

We all loved the event. Mighty-Girl is always excited to meet real-life authors and illustrators, and she was certainly inspired by Jane Hissey. As soon as we arrived home, she grabbed a sketch book and pencils and announced “Right, I need some toys!” I’m looking forward to Giraffe in Dinosaur Land once she’s written it 😉 Mighty-Girl is shy when meeting people, so didn’t say much (or let me take pictures), but she went up to let Jane know that she liked to write too.

Destructo-Girl loves reading books, and happily turned the pages of her copy of Ruby, Blue and Blanket when it was being read. Jane kindly signed that for her, and a copy of Old Bear Stories I bought for Mighty-Girl. We do have second-hand copies of half the stories, but I wanted a special edition for my girls, and to compare the text as it’s been rewritten this year (another post, soon hopefully…)

You can read more about Jane Hissey at Mostly Books on their website, covering both events and with pictures from the midday event.

Destructo-Girl at Mostly Books

I’d like to thank Jane Hissey, Salariya, and Mostly Books for putting on a wonderful event. We all thoroughly enjoyed it. Thank-you 🙂

Primrose by Alex T. Smith

Primrose: Alex T. Smith (Scholastic Children's Books, 2013)

Primrose: Alex T. Smith (Scholastic Children’s Books, 2013)

This is one of those picture books that should be in every library, every nursery, every school and every bookshelf. I’m afraid there may be a large amount of gushing about to follow, but I’ll try to contain it.

Primrose is a pink princess; but she’s also the antithesis to the typical Pink Princess. She lives in a “pretty pink palace” and has “a pretty pink tiara, two prancing pink ponies and a plump little pug named Percy.” In many other hands, I might be running a mile by this point. But… Well, just look at the artwork for a start:

[Apologies for the appalling picture quality. I’ll replace with pictures taken in natural light as soon as possible!]


Primrose is bored, bored, bored! So she tries to have some fun but everything she does is met with cries from her family to do something more princessy.

She’s not allowed to climb trees.

She’s not allowed to dress up in a monkey costume.

She’s not allowed to play board games.

She’s not allowed to to dig vegetables in the garden.

Princesses must dress in pretty pink dresses and sit decoratively. How utterly, wonderfully, subtly subversive this book is. All these activities are things that manufacturers and retailers would want to make you believe are not for girls. Don’t believe me? Look at the examples campaigns like Let Toys Be Toys and Pink Stinks find day after day after day. Science kits are for boys only; dressing up clothes for girls are all pink dresses and fairy wings; lego is for boys; kitchen play is for girls…

The messages that children are receiving daily in their everyday lives is disturbing and must be stopped. I battle constantly against the sexist drivel my six-year old brings home from school every day (and when she was five; and when she was four…) I have got somewhere in that Mighty-Girl now tells me that she’s the only person in her class who doesn’t think there are ‘boy’ colours and ‘girl’ colours.

My four year old used to love being a pirate and her favourite colour was orange. A year in pre-school and she wants to be a pink ballerina. I wouldn’t mind, but it’s peer pressure into pinkness that has forced this change, not her own opinion.

Primrose, a very pink princess book, is perfect. It starts with pink and frilly to lure in the princess-loving brigade, and then adds in all the other elements whilst remaining pink and frilly. Because, as I’ve said before, there’s nothing wrong with pink, it’s just the all-pervading non-choice that’s the problem.

Returning to the story… The royal family despair at Primrose’s lack of princessliness and decide there is “only one thing for it. Somebody must call Grandmama.” The introduction of Grandmama is perfection again. On one side we see the stern matronly visage of Her Royal Highness (Senior); on the opposite page Primrose and Percy are tiptoeing in mud, brightly clad and not a care in the world. Storm clouds are gathering, but whom are they for?


But we really needn’t worry because Grandmama has the perfect solutions for every issue that the family have with their darling daughter and is soon bounding off again leaving everyone happy. The last double page spread showing Grandmama’s method of travel is, of course, sublime.

There are many other touches that add to this book. The copyright page ties in beautifully (“borrowed from The Royal Library”) and Percy bears an uncanny (intended) resemblance to the awesome Book Sniffer – toot toot! Overall, a sunny slice of perfection from the “royally talented” (hear hear!) Alex T. Smith.

[Apologies for the appalling picture quality. I’ll replace with pictures taken in natural light as soon as possible!]