Book Review: I Can’t Sleep, by Stephanie Blake

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_i_cant_sleepMy son has recently re-discovered Simon the rabbit (or is that Poo Bum?) and all six of the books that we have are currently on the ‘read every night’ list. Alex likes them because they have the words poo and fart in them, and because Simon is a little bit like him. Set in his ways, prone to stubborn fits of determination, but ultimately brave and clever!

This year’s instalment in the series is I Can’t Sleep, and it is a sweet story of sibling dependence. Simon’s brother’s name has changed from Gaspard to Caspar, which made doubt my memory, but other than that, this is one of my favourite books in the series.

Simon and Caspar have played all day, building a ‘STUPENDOUS’ hut, and they are settling down to sleep, but suddenly… Caspar recalls that he has left his toy rabbit outside! Oh no! Simon tries to explain why blanky needs to stay out there overnight, but Caspar gets more and more upset. This is shown in a comic-book style of illustration, with several frames showing the build-up of frustration. Finally, Simon gets his Super-Rabbit cape and goes outside to get it.

Will the blanky be there? Will the monster get Simon before he gets back inside? Will their parents hear him as he is going out the front door? You’ll have to read this one to find out.

I like this instalment in the Simon series for its empathy. Simon is forced to think of somebody other than himself for a change, and manages to work it to his advantage, with Caspar left in awe of Simon’s bravery. The sort of ‘face your fears and do it anyway’ theme is frequently seen in picture books, but empathy isn’t as prominent as a theme, so well done to Blake for doing it so relatably.

ICan'tSleep_TreeAlex & I also realised that the design of this book is very clever. He likes to select his favourite pages by colour, which as the reader I hadn’t noticed was different for each page. Something that kids who aren’t focused on the words will see, of course. Then, we spotted that the words on most pages are in the shape of a tree or bush – in my favourite spread (above), mimicking the illustration on the right-hand side. Clever!

The son who loves them is off to school for his first visit next week: he has been reading and reading I don’t want to go to School, and I think he might be ready.

Reviewed by Sarah Forster

I Can’t Sleep!
by Stephanie Blake
Published by Gecko Press
ISBN 9781776571642

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Book Review: The Ice Sea Pirates, by Frida Nilsson

Available from bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_ice_sea_piratesAre you ready for an adventure on the high seas (without Captain Feathersword?) Pick up The Ice Sea Pirates, and you are in for a treat: Siri’s adventure holds drama, unexpected sub-plots and exotic frozen worlds at every turn.

The Ice Sea Pirates is a sea opera, if you will. It has big, crazy plotlines writ larger than life that all coalesce to tell a story of essential humanity, within the bounds of a classic adventure story. Siri and Miki live with their Dad on a small island in the far North, where the sea freezes in winter. Their Dad is elderly and still suffers from the impact of a fishing accident many years earlier, so the girls need to help to get food. When they are searching for berries on another island, they are separated, and so starts Siri’s wild adventures across the wilds of the Northern Seas.

Siri knows exactly who has Miki: the Ice Sea Pirates, lead by Captain Whitehead, who shares his loot but captures young children wherever he sails. Everybody knows the stories, and most know somebody who has been lost to the Captain. But it takes a 10-year-old with a heart of gold (or at least guilt) and a mind of steel, to decide to go after them and get her sister back. She gets hired to work in the galley of the Pole Star, befriending Fredrik, the chef on the ship.

One of the strongest aspects of this book is the complex way in which friendships and relationships are described convincingly from the point of view of a 10-year-old. Fredrik’s sister was taken a decade or more ago by the Captain, and so after laying his story on Siri, he throws his lot in with her. But there is calumny, and they are separated, Siri being locked in a storehouse to ensure she misses the ship as it sails. She cautiously accepts help from a wolf-hunter of dubious moral integrity, before ending up back on the sea, then ashore again, this time becoming a surrogate mother to a merchild. Her next friendship is with the lonely boy Einar, who just wants to feed his family.

Siri’s inner life grows with every encounter, and she learns about herself and humanity through her adventures through the world. She learns to identify nastiness without a word spoken, and learns the way in which adults build up their stories to protect themselves from the truth. She also, once we reach our final destination through sheer bloody-minded tenacity, learns how quickly children can be taught through cruelty to do the same.

The illustrations from David Barrow are just perfect, and well-placed to enhance the mood of the story. The book bears quite a commercial cover for Gecko, but one that matches well the tone of the plot inside. It is dark, in tone and plot – the ice cracks with every page – so keep that in mind as you purchase.

This is an invigorating read, which delivers all the tenets of excellent story-telling, and the final scenes are unexpected and well-paced. I highly recommend it as a family read for older kids, and as a wonderful read to extend children aged 9+ with the appropriate emotional maturity. I reckon we’ll see this translation winning prizes worldwide.

Reviewed by Sarah Forster

The Ice Sea Pirates
by Frida Nilsson
Illustrated by David Barrow
Published by Gecko Press
ISBN 9781776571468

Book Review: Where is Grandma?, by Peter Schossow

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_where_is_grandmaWhat a wonderful way to introduce children to the strange world of the hospital. Here we meet Henry who is coming to visit his Grandma in hospital. His nanny has to take a phone-call and Henry decides to find his Grandma all by himself.

Peter Schossow is an award winning illustrator and this story shows why. It is almost like a graphic novel. The illustrations show a working day in the hospital with careful detail and a wonderful perspective. The text is informative and works well when read aloud. We meet the Doctors, Nurses, Janitor, other patients, Surgeon and Specialists. I loved the office of the Gastro Surgeon with detailed pictures of digestion and worms. Of course, we know that in the end Henry will find his Grandma, but there is a little bit of anxiety as the whole hospital searches for a small lost boy.

This is a substantial picture book, which works in many ways. It is a great tale, but also a visual treat with the hidden details. Finally, it provides an interesting view of a hospital from a child’s perspective. I liked the large size and the heavy covers, the quality printing and binding. This picture book is a visual and tactile treat.

Reviewed by Kathy Watson

Where is Grandma?
by Peter Schossow
Published by Gecko Press
ISBN 9781776571543

Book Review: Waiting for Goliath, by Antje Damm

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_waiting_for_goliath.jpgIn this sweet but not saccharine story about true friendship, Bear is waiting patiently for his best friend Goliath. The seasons slowly change and still Goliath doesn’t come, but Bear keeps his faith, and is rewarded at last.

A gentle but not simple story, Waiting for Goliath celebrates the virtues of patience and loyalty, and the extraordinary illustrations will delight readers both young and old.

Gecko Press describe Antje Damm’s method as creating dioramas out of cardboard then photographing them, giving them ‘a special lumosity and depth’. I can’t think of a better way to describe the illustrations; they’re captivating, and have little details that will entrance younger readers. I feel rather like I could get sucked into the pictures, and keep returning to the book time and again to look at them.

I read Waiting for Goliath to my class of 5 and 6 year olds, who enjoyed the illustrations as much as I did. They loved that genuine surprise when Goliath was revealed, and it lead to conversations about friendships, and being a good friend.

Highly recommended for children from 3 upwards.

Reviewed by Rachel Moore

Waiting for Goliath
by Antje Damm
Published by Gecko Press
ISBN 9781776571413

Book Review: Helper and Helper, by Joy Cowley

Available in bookshops nationwide.

Helper Helper is shortlisted for the Esther Glen Award for Junior Fiction in the New Zealand Book Awards for Children and Young Adults. 

cv_hleper_and_helper.jpgI am almost ashamed to say that I had not read any Lizard and Snake stories before this collection. In my defence, my work was mostly with older teenagers, so I think I can be forgiven!

However, what quirky, credible characters these two are. A bit slippery, on the one hand, but good friends working mostly together. Sounds familiar? Joy Cowley has a very accomplished way of working a little morality, a lot of humanity and a great understanding of human behaviour into each story in this collection. There’s also much clever humour, and occasionally a small measure of sadness.

The fabulous illustrations by Gavin Bishop contribute a great deal to the book, picking up on small details and bringing the characters to life in a delightful way. The endpapers are particularly worth a look!

It’s a wonderful collection and brings to mind the gentle fables of Aesop. It also brought to my mind the less gentle Cautionary Tales by Hilaire Belloc. I wonder if they are still popular, with their grim punishments for bad behaviour? I imagine that modern children will prefer Snake and Lizard.

It’s another great publication from Gecko Press, and I hope that there are more stories still to come from Joy Cowley about these unlikely best friends. Most deservedly a nominee for the NZ Children’s Book Awards.

Reviewed by Sue Esterman

Helper and Helper
by Joy Cowley, illustrated by Gavin Bishop
Published by Gecko Press
ISBN 9781776571055

Book Review: My Dog Mouse, by Eva Lindstrom

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_my_dog_mouseIf you’ve ever owned a dog and watched it grow old, you will love My Dog Mouse. Lindstrom has captured the essence of a chubby, elderly dog perfectly in her illustrations and accompanying text.

The little girl in the book is allowed to take Mouse for a walk whenever she wants and it’s obvious how much both of them enjoy their time together.

There’s no rush, they walk slowly and take in the sights, Mouse gets to sniff lampposts and fences and they even stop in the park for a picnic.

Aimed at children aged about two to five years, My Dog Mouse is a charming book. The little girl is patient with the old dog, talking to him softly and feeding him meatballs. At the end, when she takes Mouse back to his owner, she stays looking back at him until she can’t see him any more and says, “I wish Mouse was mine”.

The watercolour/ink illustrations are simple and the focus is on Mouse and the little girl – other things are seen around the edges, but they don’t intrude on the pair and their walk.

This is a lovely book that will make you feel warm every time you read it.

Reviewed by Faye Lougher

My Dog Mouse
by Eva Lindstrom
Published by Gecko Press
ISBN 9781776571482

Book Review: My Pictures After the Storm, by Éric Veillé

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_my_pictures_after_the_stormThis has become a repeat read bonanza in our household. It’s clever, hilarious and subversive. It also has the most pick-up appeal of almost any book we own. The lion after the storm is rumpled and grumpy – just as we all are after being out in the Wellington wind.

Each spread is a set of identical groups of objects, tied by the simple language at the top, where the verso page of each is simply ‘My Pictures’, while the recto page says… After the Storm; After the elephant; After the hairdresser. Sometimes the changes aren’t obvious – at one point we are encouraged to find the changes ‘After correction’.

So while reading it to your child you are building language and encouraging their understanding of change and the different things that can cause it – no matter how far-fetched. One of the changes is ‘After the Baby’, showing the disarray a life (and a page) is thrown into as baby arrives, to the horror of the older child.

Each spread is also a found poem, occasionally rhyming across the page. So before/after the hairdresser we have ‘a lion-tamer unconcerned / a lion-tamer nicely permed; a seal having fun / a seal with a bun.’

And did I mention it is funny? Every page has something to chuckle at. Sometimes it’s a discovered element you didn’t notice the last 10 times; sometimes it’s simple slapstick. I mean, what does a pig look like after being stomped by an elephant? Of course it’s a piece of ham!

Éric Veillé is a French writer and illustrator, with only one title previously translated into English (The Bureau of Misplaced Dads, which sounds brilliant). I hope to see more from him translated by Gecko Press.

Both of my sons love this book and request it regularly: it’s one of the very few that will hold both of their attention equally, though the older one gets frustrated when his brother doesn’t get it in the same way he does! It is a valuable book in the same way The Big Book of Words and Pictures is: it takes a couple of well-worn concepts, and plays around with them, resulting in an unexpected, brilliantly executed book with humour and heart.

Reviewed by Sarah Forster

My Pictures After the Storm
by Éric Veillé
Published by Gecko Press
ISBN 9781776571048