Category Archives: Children’s Books

My Dad The Hero by Stella Gurney and Katharine McEwen

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Another Walker Books story, this time exploring the difficult theme of how to fit in at school when your family is different. Tariq’s dad speaks English with a Bengali accent, and some of his classmates tease Tariq. Then the teacher arranges for all the parents to come and tell the class about different jobs (what a great idea!) and Tariq’s dad is the first up. Tariq doesn’t give his dad the letter, in hope of avoiding more teasing, but he feels ashamed that he’s embarrassed by his own beloved dad. Luckily his dad finds the letter in the dustbin, magically understands the whole problem, and prepares an amazing puppet show all about being a taxi driver, complete with sweets made by Tariq’s mum. The class loves it and nobody teases Tariq any more. If it it all sounds too easy to those of us who recall school as a much more dog-eat-dog kind of place, well, all I can say is, maybe nowadays it is all much more inclusive and tolerant. Let’s hope so.


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I like these Walker books for early readers. The stories are easy to understand, about topics that are relevant to a five- or six-year-old and pleasantly illustrated. Not extremely exciting, but that’s OK. I especially liked this one because it’s set in South Africa, where I grew up. Our heroine Flora is finally big enough to look after her little sister on the coach trip to her grandparents, but her Ouma’s rooster Nelson is too scary for her. Despite an alarming egg-dropping incident, the girls have lots of fun all summer and with Ouma’s help, one day Flora realises he’s just a ‘big chicken’. It’s a gentle tale that transported my daughter into happy memories of seaside visits to her own grandparents and egg-collecting on holiday. The words are just a bit too numerous and the sentences a little too complex for my daughter to tackle on her own just yet.

Mutiny at Crossbones Bay

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Too hard for a five-year-old! We took Mutiny at Crossbones Bay (and a couple more from this series) out of the library, thinking it would be like Lucy and the Sea Monster, but, alas for now, it is a series for the next age range up…perhaps for eight-year olds. The text is for a confident reader, and the puzzles are time-consuming and tricky for a child who’s not come across the idea of code-cracking before. In one puzzle, a shape must be traced accurately and cut out exactly to fit over parts of the picture to reveal a secret message. Another requires knowledge of a compass and mapreading. Others call for careful transcription of the alphabet to crack the code. Mazes have gone up a couple of notches in difficulty, occasionally requiring some arithmetic. The story is pretty exciting, too, and with Swashbuckle being all the kids want to watch on TV at the moment, we were content with the piratical theme.

This series (Usborne Puzzle Adventures) is a treat for future years. I hear tell of a box set of these too.

Lucy and The Sea Monster To The Rescue

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More puzzle story fun! This is a sequel to Lucy and the Sea Monster, one of the Usborne Young Puzzle Adventures, a series by different authors with titles such as Molly’s Magic Carpet and Uncle Pete’s Pirate Adventure. The series seems to be aimed at slightly older readers, perhaps newly independent readers, following on from the excellent Young Puzzles books by Susannah Leigh. As in all the puzzle tales, a child has to read a simple paragraph or two per page, and solve a small puzzle, such as spotting something integral to the next event, or finding the way through a maze. At each page turn there’s a cliffhanger fraught with the kind of excitement that bugs out a five-year-old’s eyes. And although I didn’t find the tale quite as gripping as my daughter did, the little challenges do brighten up the story by seeming to involve the reader in the success of the quest. Plus, in this one, Lucy gets to ride through the waves on Horace the friendly sea monster’s back (again) to rescue her castaway pals on Treasure Island. Pirates too, y’see. Via Chocolate Island (vicarious tasty treats as well). As far as I can tell, the main difference between this series and the Young Puzzles books is there’s a bit more reading and a bit less puzzling. Suitable for co-reading from age four, probably.

The Haunted House by Kazuno Kohara

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The haunted house

A haunted house is made into a comfy home by its new owner, a young witch, and her helpful cat. The illustrations in this quietly hilarious and fear-banishing picture book are the star of the show, each composed of woodcut prints for a silhouetted effect in three colours.

Haunted house

The ghosts are overlaid in a tactile white, very suitable for their re-use (after being washed by the witch) as smiling sheets and curtains and tablecloths…”They were all very useful.” is my favourite line. Its original storyline makes it by far the best of the three books by this author, though the other two (Jack Frost and The Little Wizard) have equally charming woodcuts.

Milo and the Magical Stones by Marcus Pfister

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Milo and the Magical Stones

I have fond memories of the Choose Your Own Adventure books I read as a child, in which some pages ended in a choice, leading you to different story strands and eventually, via further choices, different endings, usually dependent on a mixture of luck or your own clever predictions. This book is like that, but with only one choice and a blasting moral imperative. Show gratitude and conserve the world! Or die, miserable, cold and alone…This might sound annoying, yet it is charmingly told and illustrated, with the magical stones picked out in gold foil, an effect beloved of artists and viewers since the Middle Ages, and no less effective here. Mice on a pretty island live a reasonably pleasant subsistence lifestyle until one day a mouse discovers a magical stone in a tunnel, emitting light and heat. (Oh, what can the analogy be, dear reader?)

The other mice all want one too, to see them through the chilly nights, and an old wise mouse advises them to give something back to the earth for every stone, and to take only one each. In option one, that’s what they do…dutifully substituting handcrafted items for the stones and living happily and warmly in the glow of the stones forever after. In option two, of course, there’s a human-style free-for-all as the mice mine the f**k out of the island and end up with worse than nothing. I guess, if you would like to introduce your child to the ethics of using carbon fuels in an indirect way, this would be a good book to start with. Or, you could keep the moral to the idea of playground sharing, and simply enjoy the adorable mouse pictures and the fun of flipping the pages to different endings.

Frog and a Very Special Day by Max Veltuijs

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Frog and a very special day

In this heartless story, young Frog awakes one day remembering that his friend (Mole, was it?) had told him what a special day it would be, but not why. He spends the morning visiting some of his animal friends, each of whom shed no light on the matter in various annoying ways. One (Rat, I believe) even smugly says that every day is very special for him. Finally he discovers that Mole has gone out to a party. This shattering news crushes poor Frog, who dismally imagines how wonderful it would have been to attend the party too. Feeling alone, sad, uninvited and still puzzled, Frog returns home…where (no surprise even to very young readers) all his secretive pals have prepared Frog a birthday party, exactly as he’d imagined it.

Sad Frog

A happy tale, after all? I think not. Setting aside the strange idea that Frog wouldn’t remember his own birthday, I failed to see the humour in denying him the joys of anticipation, instead causing him to suffer a dreadful birthday morning. Other Frog tales by this author have interesting morals, in particular Frog and the Stranger, which deals with prejudice very clearly and engagingly, but if there’s one here, I’ve missed it. The usual pleasant, simple Frog illustrations adorn this book, and the level is possibly suitable for beginner readers.

Katie and the Bathers by James Mayhew

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Katie and the bathers cover
How to combine a visit to the Impressionists that adorn London’s National Gallery with a cooling dip on a summer’s day? Use your imagination, of course! Cheerful and adventurous young Katie is taken out for the day by her Grandma. Sadly, the swimming pool is full! But Grandma needs a rest, so they pop into the gallery, where Seurat’s glowing Bathers at Asnières ( lure Katie in for a swim in the river.

She makes friends with young Pierre, and they sit on the frame for a rest…oh no! it tips, pouring water into the gallery! A boat is needed, and luckily Seurat provided one in another nearby painting. Pissarro’s Woman Hanging Laundry helps to dry their clothes, and the ‘magician’ in Signac’s Portrait of Felix Feneon returns the river to the painting. Eventually Katie returns to Grandma.

Katie and the bathers
A wonderful way to introduce children to some of the world’s artistic masterpieces and bring them to life, I heartily recommend all of the ‘Katie and the..’ books. Then, take your children to the National Gallery, of course, where they can relive many of their adventures with Katie.

Living Sunlight: How Plants Bring the Earth to Life by Molly Bang and Penny Chisholm

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Hmm. A rather cheesily told explanation of how sunlight powers all life on Earth. However, it’s brightly and prettily illustrated in an unusual dotted sort of style, making it seem as accessible as many another picture book. And, why not make this excellent point early on?


Touching lightly but clearly on photosynthesis, food webs and outer space, it introduces these big concepts to very young children, intertwining them in a way they can grasp. (Apparently. We’ll see how well it went in later, at school.) If the awe and wonder is ladled on a bit too thickly for my taste, perhaps that won’t bother everyone.
There are too few science books for toddlers anyway – why not start with this one?

Princess Florizella by Philippa Gregory

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This cheery book upends traditional princessy ideas with a not-very-pretty, not-at-all-precious heroine, who’s already got a kingdom (well, she will do) and a castle of her own, thank you. She’s got plenty of liberal, unfeudal, feminist ideas and isn’t in any rush to get married, even to a very nice prince. Entwined within a rollicking tale that includes the required elements of choose-a-bride ball, romantic picnic, attempted rescue from high windows (Florizella climbs down herself) and galloping to a real rescue from a dragon (about to eat the Prince) are some excellent points about it being important to be good company, practical and kind, and considerably less important to be well groomed.

Apparently, I read it none too soon to my almost-five-year-old daughter, who squeaked with Disney-induced excitement and sighed with undue happiness when the Prince proposed (only to be refused). The illustrations are minimal line drawings that failed to thrill my daughter, but the hilarious, heartwarming tale stands alone. Philippa Gregory, as I recall fondly, has written some other tales for children, perhaps for older readers.