Perfect Picture Books August -September 2020

I have received some delightful picture books to review recently. Here are three which make perfect back-to-school treats for home, classroom or library enjoyment.

What’s In My Lunchbox? written by Peter Carnavas, illustrated by Kat Chadwick

Cover illustration by Kat Chadwick, published by New Frontier Publishing

I would imagine that every school child is familiar with the concept of opening their lunchbox in eager anticipation of the delights and surprises it might contain. From this everyday experience Peter Carnavas, an award-winning Australian author, invites children to let their imaginations soar as the young boy in his story finds an increasingly unusual collection of treats contained within his mischievous-looking lunchbox.

The simple rhythm of a repeated line leading to a revelation on the subsequent page makes this a hugely enjoyable book to read aloud and builds the audience’s anticipation of the next bizarre lunchtime snack! The illustrations by Kat Chadwick are bold, bright and wonderfully expressive as the young boy approaches his lunchbox with greater apprehension on each page.

Kat Chadwick’s lunchbox appears to be totally aware of the surprises it contains!

I highly recommend this book for pre-school and Reception Class children for whom it will turn a routine experience into a feast for the imagination!

Yellow Dress Day written by Michelle Worthington, illustrated by Sophie Norsa

Cover illustration by Sophie Norsa, published by New Frontier Publishing

This sumptuously illustrated picture book tells the tale of Ava, a young girl whose rainbow-coloured selection of dresses provides the perfect dress to match the atmospheric conditions; red for sunshine, purple for rain, blue for snow. On “whistling, whirly, windy days Ava’s heart tells her that she must wear yellow – but disaster strikes one morning when the yellow dress cannot be found!

Michelle Worthington’s text presents the sensory world of Ava in simple and sympathetic sentences, illustrated with great warmth by Sophie Norsa and printed with beautiful typographic effects. This is a lovely book which I am sure will be greatly enjoyed by all young children who have very determined ideas about their clothing choices. A percentage of the proceeds from Yellow Dress Day are donated to the International Rett Syndrome Foundation.

Ruby and Graham written and illustrated by Lucy Barnard

Cover illustration by Lucy Barnard, published by New Frontier Publishing

In Acorn Wood, two great friends, Ruby red squirrel and Graham grey squirrel have very different personalities. Ruby is the fun party girl who loves to have a good time and is much-loved by everyone. Graham, on the other hand, is rarely seen without his clipboard as he tries to keep the wood under control. When his fellow woodland creatures stop listening to him, he decides that he will behave more like Ruby in an attempt to become as popular as her. The results are wonderfully portrayed by author/illustrator Lucy Barnard; on every page the chaos and disruption to the woodland habitat becomes more apparent.

This book makes clear to young readers the importance of staying true to yourself, working as a team and the need for all types of personalities to make the world a beautiful place. It also emphasises the need to take responsibility and could be used as a prompt for conversations about looking after the environment and learning about woodland animals. A delightful story for children in the 3-6 age range and I would imagine that it would work well in Forest School settings with Key Stage 1 learners.

I am very grateful to New Frontier Publishing UK for sending me copies of these beautiful picture books in exchange for my honest opinion.

Recently Published Delicious Treats for Young Readers

I don’t know if it is just a coincidence, but since lockdown happened in March I have received a number of books to review which feature baking as a main theme, an activity which many children have had the opportunity to practise during the months at home. I thought I would round up these tasty titles here.

Freddie’s Amazing Bakery: Dancing With Doughnuts, written by Harriet Whitehorn, illustrated by Alex G Griffiths

Cover image by Alex G Griffiths, published by OUP Children’s Books

I especially love this short chapter book for its portrayal of the title character Freddie Bonbon as not just a star baker but also the kindest and most thoughtful individual you could hope to meet. When we first encounter Freddie he is removing one last batch of cinnamon buns from the oven before shutting up his bakery for the day. The buns are to be a gift for the folk of Belville who are auditioning for the town’s final Summer Talent Show before local impresarios Max and Margie Motion retire. Freddie, who suffers terrible stage-fright himself, is going along to support his many friends, especially his ballroom-dancing bakery manager Amira.

A humorous, warm and accident-strewn plot ensues in a book ideally suited to newly confident readers to read alone. The text is in an easily readable font size, broken up by hilariously expressive illustrations drawn by Alex G Griffiths featuring a multi-ethnic cast of characters, as well as interesting typography effects. With cakes, dancing and a deliciously scheming villain in the character of rival baker Bernard this is a book which will be equally enjoyed by boys and girls of age 6+.

The Fabulous Cakes of Zinnia Jakes, written by Brenda Gurr, illustrated by Nancy Leschnikoff

Cover image by Nancy Leschnikoff, published by New Frontier Publishing

Zinnia Jakes is an undercover baker! Her cakes are famous in her hometown for their fabulous intricacy, but nobody knows that they are baked by a nine-year-old girl based in a secret kitchen in her Auntie Jam’s house. This delightful story mixes magic, mystery and baking in a recipe that will delight young readers of 6+. You can read a more detailed review from an earlier blog post here.

Sage Cookson’s Great Escape and Sage Cookson’s Snow Day, written by Sally Murphy and illustrated by Celeste Hulme

Cover image by Celeste Hulme, published by New Frontier Publishing
Cover image by Celeste Hulme, published by New Frontier Publishing

Sage Cookson is the daughter of two famous TV cooks and food experts. She is used to a lifestyle that blends school with jetting off to accompany them on broadcasting assignments, which lead to exciting adventures.

These books contain a tempting mix of food-related content with perfectly presented peril and excitement, enticingly packaged for a readership of 6/7+. You can read an earlier blog post with a more detailed review here.

Polly Profiterole’s Little Town written by Maggie May Gordon and illustrated by Margarita Levina

Cover image by Margarita Levina, published by New Frontier Publishing

The youngest children are also catered for in this banquet of baking-based books by this quirky tale of extreme baker Polly Profiterole who decides to cook up the buildings required to breathe life into her sleepy little town! An absolute feast for the youngest imaginations, you can read my more detailed review in a former post here.

Perfect Picture Books July 2020

I have been very fortunate in recent weeks to receive an amazing selection of picture books from New Frontier Publishing, who have made it their goal to produce great quality books with powerful messages and informative content. Here are a selection of their July publications.

Polly Profiterole’s Little Town written by Maggie May Gordon and illustrated by Margarita Levina

Cover image by Margarita Levina, published by New Frontier Publishing

This deliciously imaginative story from Maggie May Gordon, who is a well-known poet and lyricist in Australia, is likely to inspire all kinds of creativity in children with whom it is shared. Polly Profiterole is a very hard-working cook who is completely exhausted from making pancakes for the inhabitants of her little town every day.

Her little town, which is beautifully captured in retro colours by illustrator Margarita Levina, seems to be lost in a time-warp in an out of the way corner of Australia. The verandah of Polly’s bungalow serves as the Pancake Parlour…and is the ONLY shop in a town so neglected that it doesn’t have a school, church, shops or even a pub! In a flash of inspiration one night Polly decides that she will bake the institutions required to bring her town to life, and her builder husband Percy can then construct her vision. From her imagination pours a series of buildings created from some highly unusual but very tasty materials; my favourite joke was the Hot Bread Bank, which required a huge amount of dough!

This quirky tale would be perfect to share with pre-school and Early Years children and could stimulate all kinds of construction, baking and other imaginative and creative activities.

My Grandma is 100, written by Aimee Chan and illustrated by Angela Perrini

Cover image by Angela Perrini, published by New Frontier Publishing

This heart-warming story is told from a young child’s point of view as he ponders the one hundredth birthday of his Grandma Edna. The charming text by Aimee Chan and playful illustrations by Angela Perrini fully capture a child’s sense of awe at the magical number 100. I found myself chuckling with amusement as the little boy asks Grandma whether she will have fairy bread and crisps and wonders whether the fire brigade will be required if Grandma cannot blow out one hundred candles! Aimee Chan has brilliantly highlighted the differences in the way that the younger and older generations think whilst conveying the absolute determination of the child to find the perfect present for his beloved Grandma.

The inspiration for the story, I believe, was the author’s own grandmother-in-law and the sense of intergenerational family celebration and love flows from every page. I love the use of different fonts, sizes and colours to emphasise certain words and I am sure that this book will delight all pre-school and Early Years children and provide an excellent basis for discussions about family and growing old.

Amazing Animal Earth, written by Alessandra Yap and illustrated by Anastasia Popp

Cover image by Anastasia Popp, published by New Frontier Publishing

This book takes young readers on a whistle-stop tour of the world’s seven continents in an entertaining and educational look at the diverse range of wildlife that we are lucky enough to enjoy on our planet. The story is told in simple rhyming text by teacher Alessandra Yap, and from the positioning of the young girl on the far right hand side of the first spread you know that you are about to join her on a journey.

First to Africa, which the text explains is made of many countries and a descriptive selection of the amazing animals to be found on that great continent. From the hot colours of Africa the narrative progresses to snowy Europe, exotic Asia, vast North America, fascinating South America, amazing Australia and icy Antarctica. At each stop a small selection of interesting animals are highlighted so that despite this being a slim book the spark is lit in a child’s quest for knowledge about the incredible animals that we should treasure. The illustrations by Anastasia Popp entertainingly place the young girl in the centre of the animal action on each spread which I am sure will encourage young readers to study the pictures with great attention.

The Sloth and the Dinglewot, written by Nicole Prust and illustrated by Amanda Enright

Cover illustration by Amanda Enright, Published by New Frontier Publishing

This debut picture book from Sri Lankan-born Nicole Prust who now works as a teacher in the UK quite wonderfully aims to encourage young children to find the inner strength to try something new. From its glittering front cover onwards this book literally sparkles with the joy of exploration and adventure!

Samuel Sloth’s family hang out on the banks of the lazy lagoon, but while the rest of his family lie in the trees with their eyes closed Samuel has one eye open for adventure. He is encouraged to follow his instincts by the mysterious Dinglewot, a bird whose feathers explode with colour, leaving a trail of multi-coloured sparkles behind her flight path. She leads Samuel beyond the edge of the trees to frolic with baboons, be entertained by musical bats and eventually to feast in Dinglewotville. At every new stage when Samuel’s inner fears threaten to hold him back the Dinglewot gently encourages him to find his determination and relish a new experience.

I enjoyed this book hugely. The text written as rhyming couplets is perfectly complemented by the beautifully detailed and brightly coloured illustrations so that Samuel’s journey, from sleepy sloth longing for adventure to bold explorer who has conquered his inner fears, flows gloriously through the story. I can imagine that this book will be hugely popular as a read-aloud story in Early Years classrooms or as a bedtime story and I am sure that young children will love joining in with the Dinglewot’s rhyme as they learn to embrace new experiences. I am looking forward to sharing it with Reception class children when term begins in September.

There are teaching resources available for this book on the New Frontier website, available here.

I am most grateful to New Frontier Publishing and Little Steps Publishing for sending me these books in exchange for my honest opinion.

Encouraging Exploration 1: Gregory Goose Adventures by Hilary Robinson, Illustrated by Mandy Stanley

Cover image by Mandy Stanley, published by Catch a Star
Cover image by Mandy Stanley, published by Catch a Sta

With so much evidence based research pointing to the positive benefits of reading on mental health, educational outcomes and development of empathy it is so important to encourage a love of books in children from a young age. These two latest titles in the Gregory Goose series are perfect for sharing with toddlers and pre-schoolers to help develop an intrinsic love of books. As with everything from Catch a Star/New Frontier Publishing they are made with the highest production values; printed on quality thick card, with eye-catching shiny highlights on the covers and made to a perfect size for a pre-schooler to hold comfortably.

I had the privilege to meet both the author Hilary Robinson and illustrator, Mandy Stanley earlier this year and I know how much effort they put into their collaboration to perfectly combine the simple rhyming text and pictures so that they perfectly complement each other. Hilary’s text is written with precise rhyme and rhythm and I love the way that she does not compromise on vocabulary so that children are introduced to words such as chalet, clinging and zooming. Mandy’s illustrations are full of colour and energy and feature the most sartorially elegant fowl in fiction! The end result are books which will give endless hours of pleasure to children and adult readers alike.

The pictures are full of detail, in stunningly vibrant colours blending simple shapes with more detailed artwork. For example in Gregory Goose is on the Loose Up the Mountain the pine trees are portrayed as both simple green triangles and also as beautifully detailed branches of pine needles and pine cones. Triangles are in evidence throughout this book, as flags on the ski slopes, the rooftops of chalets and of course Gregory’s beak. This gives opportunities for discussing shape and number as well as the huge opportunities for chat about the action taking place on every page. In Gregory Goose is on the Loose At the Fair the pictures are full of circles: lights on the rides and attractions, round windows on the rocket ship ride, toffee apples and the Hoopla hoops. Finally, I should mention that these are “seek and find” books with the challenge to discover Gregory’s whereabouts on every page – there are hints in the text, but it is not always easy! With so much detail to observe, Gregory Goose certainly encourages children to concentrate on the page, thus building a stamina which will be required to develop reading skills.

If you are the parent, grandparent, Godparent or in any way related to pre-school children, do put these on your Christmas/birthday shopping list, you will be making a hugely positive contribution to the future of any child with whom you share these books.

For my reviews of other books in the Gregory Goose is on the Loose series, please click here.

I am grateful to New Frontier Publishing/Catch a Star for sending me copies of these titles in exchange for an honest review.

#MGTakesOnThursday: Scoop McLaren Detective Editor by Helen Castles

Image created by @MarySimms72 and used with permission

This is a weekly meme started by @marysimms72 on her brilliant Book Craic blog.

To take part, the steps to follow are:

Post a picture of a front cover of a middle-grade book which you have read and would recommend to others with details of the author, illustrator and publisher.

Open the book to page 11 and share your favourite sentence.

Write three words to describe the book.

Either share why you would recommend this book, or link to your review.

Author: Helen Castles

Illustrator: Beatriz Castro

Publisher: New Frontier Publishing UK

Favourite sentence from page 11: “I whipped out my phone (that Dad said I’m only supposed to use in emergencies) and googled ‘antigen’.

Three words: Detective – Editor – Mystery

This is a perfect introduction to mystery stories for lower KS2 readers with a feisty lead female protagonist and unusually, manages to combine a technology-driven modern day plot with a nostalgic, small-town feel. My original review, which includes an interview with the author Helen Castles, can be read here.

A second book in the series should appear in October, release has been delayed for obvious reasons. I cannot wait to read it!

Enticing Early Readers: Zinnia Jakes and Sage Cookson Book Reviews

It is so important for newly emerging readers to have books available which instil a love of reading by combining enjoyable stories with great design; making books desirable objects. These two new series from New Frontier Publishing deliver on both counts: hugely enjoyable stories in books which have been created with extraordinary care, the covers and pages are top quality, with buff-coloured paper (which, as a parent of a dyslexic child I always value highly) and are the perfect dimensions for 6/7 year-olds to hold.

The Fabulous Cakes of Zinnia Jakes written by Brenda Gurr, illustrated by Nancy Leschnikoff

Front Cover: Zinnia Jakes The Crumbling Castle illustrated by Nancy Leschnikoff, published by New Frontier Publishing

Take out your tea set and cake stand and feast on The Fabulous Cakes of Zinnia Jakes! The cover, with its lively illustrations and silver foil highlights certainly ticks the shelf-appeal boxes. Inside newly confident readers will find a story blending baking, mystery and a sprinkle of magic. It’s a perfect recipe for an entertaining and enjoyable read!

The identity of Zinnia Jakes is known only to her Auntie Jam, best friend Addie and international food critic father. Who could possibly guess that the fabulous creations baked by Zinnia Jakes are actually the work of nine-year-old Zoe Jones? She seems to have inherited her late mother’s talent for baking and produces delectable cakes from a secret kitchen in Auntie Jam’s home, assisted by a mysteriously magical cat and occasional help from Addie.

In this, her first adventure, she is tasked with producing a medieval castle cake to act a s a show stopper at a Professor’s book launch. But with only 48 hours to conceptualise and create a structure, and a best friend and aunt who are also preparing for their own events at the Medieval Fair, not to mention transportation problems, will Zinnia be able to deliver the goods?

This is an absolutely charming story, which I can imagine being very popular with the cohort of children who flock to the Rainbow Fairies and Isadora Moon early chapter books. The chapter headings throughout are stylishly illustrated by Nancy Leschnikoff. With a delicious sounding recipe for medieval gingerbread at the back it is a perfect book to enjoy during the lockdown period and beyond!

Sage Cookson’s Sweet Escape, written by Sally Murphy, illustrated by Celeste Hulme

Sage Cookson is the globe-trotting, 10 year-old daughter of Basil and Ginger Cookson, the famous TV cooks and gastronomes. It is second nature to her to pack her suitcase, say goodbye to best friend Lucy and accompany her parents to the next location to film an episode of The Cooksons Cook On!

This time she is extra excited because she and Lucy have just been given their first mobile phones; they will be able to keep in touch regularly during her week away from school. The excitement builds up further when Sage discovers that the location, Newhaven Resort in Western Australia, is home to a chocolate plantation!

However, arrival at Marco’s Chocolates brings a less than sugary welcome, in fact Marco and his assistant Nancy appear positively hostile to their famous visitors. Adventure is thrown into the mix when Marco drives the family into the bush to visit his secret plantation!

This is a super introduction to adventure stories for newly confident readers, with an exciting but not too threatening plot, great pacing and a relateable young protagonist. Stylish black and white illustrations throughout the book are by Celeste Hulme. There is also a divine-looking chocolate fondant recipe at the end of the book.

Sage Cookson’s Snow Day, written by Sally Murphy, illustrated by Celeste Hulme

Ten year-old Sage Cookson is off on her travels again, this time to Snowy Village in the Australian Alps. An old friend of her mother has just opened a patisserie from where her parents plan to film the next episode of The Cooksons Cook On.

Sage is equally excited by the prospect of improving her skiing technique and spending time with Julia’s teenage son Kyle, with whom she has been friends throughout her childhood. However, on arrival she is shocked by the change in Kyle’s personality, and hurt by his sullen and uncommunicative attitude. This was not the sort of frosty she had been hoping for on this trip!

When Kyle disappears with his snowboard early the next morning, Sage’s capacity for friendship will be tested in this pacy adventure. At the end of the book you will find a very tempting recipe for easy mille-feuille!

All three of these books would be lovely additions to a school or classroom library to be enjoyed by newly independent readers, and I can equally imagine young readers wanting to collect their own sets to read at home. Perfect adventures for 6/7 year-olds.

I am very grateful to New Frontier Publishing for sending me these books in exchange for my honest opinion.

In My Dreams by Stef Gemmill and Tanja Stephani – Blog Tour

In My Dreams front cover, published by New Frontier Publishing June 2020

I was fortunate to get an advanced glimpse at this beautiful book at a bloggers event hosted by New Frontier Publishing back in February. The glorious jewel-coloured cover, with its gold foil highlights marks it out as a book to treasure; it is crammed with happy imagination, brought to life in Tanja Stephani’s tender and joyous illustrations.

I am delighted to be able to bring you a Q&A with illustrator Tanja, conducted via email, with the help of Henry at New Frontier.

Firstly, Tanja, can I congratulate you on the beautiful illustrations you have created for In My Dreams. I was lucky enough to be invited to a bloggers event in February and everyone there was drawn to this book, almost like bees to a particularly attractive flower!

Thank you so much for that, I received the book today in the mail and I’m really totally happy with the result!

How did you collaborate with author Stef Gemmill to communicate her vision for the story and how long did it take you to illustrate this book?

I actually didn’t speak with Stef Gemmill, I was invited to collaborate with a lovely Agency called Plum Pudding, and after 3 weeks I had this wonderful opportunity to sign the contract for this lovely story.

As I read the book, I found that some of the illustrations sparked memories of books that I had read as bedtime stories to my children, was this your intention? 

I’m sure I am inspired by a lot of children’s memories! But when I was reading the text for the first time, most of the pictures came immediately to my mind.

I absolutely love the picture of the boy riding his dragon over the dancing elephants; do you have a favourite picture in the book?

Oh yes, I love the cover very much. And now with the glitter it’s amazing – the art director did a wonderful job as well. 

How did you produce the illustrations for this book, do you start on paper and transfer to digital illustration?

First I started with the marshmallow page and worked only by hand, but then my sister got very ill and I had to work in the hospital sometimes too, so I decided to create the whole book on the iPad.

Do you have a favourite medium for creating your artwork, and has it changed over your career?

I’m an art supply “junky”. I love to try new things out, but mostly I end up using pastel, water colours, colour pencils and then I finish things off with the iPad.

How did you become a children’s book illustrator and was this always your ambition?

Yes it was always a dream for sure, but I started with a graphic design career and then moved on to art stuff like creating giant dragons for playgrounds or lamps for children’s rooms, paper objects, fine art etc… finally after 30 years I became a children’s illustrator.  

Do you have a favourite artist or illustrator and was there anyone who particularly encouraged your development as an artist when you were younger?

I think I’ve always had an artist’s soul…creating small worlds and trying out every kind of material. The teachers didn’t like me very much at this time. I always changed the assignment and had a better idea as an example. They wanted us to make a little dwarf made of felt, but I decided to create a big, big dragon. I worked on it over the whole weekend. 

My favourite children’s book artists in my childhood were Tomi Ungerer, Tatjana Hauptmann, Hans Fischer, Jean de Brunhoff, Maurice Sendak and of course Alois Carigiet.

What advice would you give to a child (and I would have been in this group) who struggles to get started when they are asked to draw something at school?

Oh that’s a good question… I worked a lot with children in schools and I never asked them to start drawing with something. We always started with kind of traces on paper, backgrounds of brushes that danced over the paper and other different ways to create backgrounds, so every child was able to see something coming out from that background and the question was answered.

Thank you for answering my questions and I wish you much success with In My Dreams; I can’t wait to share this wonderful book with children in my library.

Thank you so much for asking me, it was pleasure!

And here is my review:

The story begins (and ends) in a young boy’s bedroom, stuffed with toys and shaded in muted blue tones with his bed suffused in moonlight as he sleeps with his dog snuggled up on the covers. Each fully-illustrated double page spread takes you on a fantastical journey through the boy’s dreams, with simple sentences meandering across the pages. We accompany the boy and his faithful dog across rainbow-dappled marshmallow clouds, through rain and puddles made of sweet treats,, to the ocean floor and through jungles. My favourite page shows them gathering treasure…but no, it is not the gold coins or jewels we might expect, but rather “kisses and kindness from the island of Love”

This would make a wonderful bedtime story; Stef Gemmill’s sentences are filled with assonance and gentle rhythm, lulling any child to whom you read this into a tranquil state. I can think of no higher praise than to say that as I read it aloud (to an empty room) I was transported back 23 years to reading “Goodnight Moon” to my own children. In a preschool or Reception class this book would be a wonderful prompt for a discussion about dreams, it would be interesting to find out if children find that some of the pictures are redolent of bedtime stories that they already know. Some of the pictures certainly set me wondering whether the boy’s dreams were being influenced by some well-known bedtime story books.

You can watch a trailer of Tanja Stephani creating her artwork here

I am most grateful to New Frontier Publishing for sending me a copy of In My Dreams to review.

Do check out the other stops on the blog tour this week, with reviews and interviews from an amazing list of children’s book bloggers.

Review: Boo Loves Books by Kaye Baillie, illustrated by Tracie Grimwood

Front cover of Boo Loves Books, illustration by Tracie Grimwood, Published by New Frontier Publishing

As we mark #EmpathyDay2020 today, it seemed the perfect time to post a review of this gorgeous picture book which demonstrates empathy throughout. Firstly there is the kind teacher, Miss Spinelli, who recognises Phoebe’s anxiety about reading and decides to take the class on a trip away from the classroom to read to a non-judgemental audience in an unusual location. Then we see Phoebe’s mum recognising her reluctance to participate in the trip and reassuring her that she is going to have a wonderful time. Next, the small but significant action of her best friend giving her hand a squeeze; showing children that sometimes even the tiniest gesture can mean so much to someone. Finally, Phoebe’s recognition that Big Boo, despite his enormous size is every bit as anxious as she is and her recognition of a kindred spirit helping her through her difficulties.

Kaye Baillie’s story has a heart-warming outcome, showing young children the positive impact of empathy. The charming illustrations by Tracie Grimwood give the impression that they have been created with colouring pencils, the muted shades perfectly matched to the tone of the story. The transformation of Phoebe’s nervous facial expressions and body language to a face suffused with smiles is deeply touching. At a time when even the youngest children display anxieties at the strange conditions we are all operating under, stories such as Boo Loves Books, with a message of quiet reassurance are invaluable.

I highly recommend this book for any pre-school or Key Stage One’s collection of books to read for empathy and if you are looking for a book to share at home with a child of 3-6 years old, then add this to your shopping list!

My thanks to New Frontier Publishing for sending me a copy of Boo Loves Books in exchange for an honest review.

Blog Tour: Extraordinary! written by Penny Harrison, illustrated by Katie Wilson

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Welcome to my stop on the Extraordinary! blog tour. I am very grateful that I had the chance to ask Penny Harrison some questions about her inspiration for this wonderful book. Here are her answers:

This book abounds with an appreciation of the natural world, does this stem from your own childhood?

Yes! I grew up on a cattle farm in the middle of New South Wales, in Australia. It was an incredible place, in the Capertee Valley, surrounded by the bluest mountains.

We really did experience four seasons there and each season bought something special, whether it was exploring and camping in the bush in spring and swimming in the creek in summer, or picking fruit for homemade jam in autumn and hunting for natural treasures while collecting kindling for the fire in winter.

I felt a strong sense of place in this natural world from an early age.

Could you tell UK readers what life is like on an Australian farm?

I was five years old when we first moved to the farm. It was in the middle of one of Australia’s worst droughts and all I can remember is the dust and driving around on the back of a truck, feeding hay to the cattle.

I learned to read when I was very young and escaped into books, like The Secret Garden and Anne of Green Gables, where nature was pretty and lush.

But the drought eventually broke – the hills turned green, the trees in the orchard were laden with fruit, and the rivers and creeks started flowing. At times they even flooded, cutting us off from the nearest town.

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We had plenty of pets, including a poddy calf, a joey kangaroo, a milking cow, and various guinea pigs, rabbits and chickens.

We would catch a bus to the nearest primary school, which usually took about an hour (including a bumpy 15-minute drive along our dirt driveway).

For high school, we were sent to boarding school in Sydney. But, being a shy homebody (and a country girl at heart), I didn’t last long and ended up doing most of my schooling by correspondence, which involved packages of work being sent to me in the mail.

I read in your biography that you have written for many audiences, what drew you to children’s picture books?

I’ve mostly written for newspapers and magazines, covering every thing from courts and police rounds to gardens and interiors. But the thing with journalism is that you’re telling other people’s stories and often using their words.

I’ve always loved children’s books and am completely obsessed with illustration (I would so love to be able to draw). It just took me a long time to realise that these were the stories I wanted to tell, and even longer to build up the confidence to try writing them.

Why did you choose to write this book in rhyme?

It honestly just came out that way. The concept didn’t begin as a rhyming story, but when I started, I found it really wanted to rhyme. Some stories are stubborn like that.

What message would you like your readers to take away from Extraordinary!?

That the little moments in life are what matter most. We can strive for success and grandeur, but being able to notice and treasure the ‘ordinary’ is what will ultimately fulfil us. And what we need more of in this world.

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For years I’ve had a quote from William Martin (beautifully illustrated by children’s author/illustrator Jess Racklyeft) pinned to my wall and this was the inspiration for Extraordinary:

Penny Harrison

How closely did you work with the illustrator, Katie Wilson, and what do you think about the way she has illustrated your story?

About six years ago, I started following Katie’s beautiful work on Facebook and I remember thinking to myself, ‘I’d love to see her illustrate a picture book’. When I heard that I’d been paired with Katie for one of my own books, I was blown away. Katie worked with the publisher and designer. I simply sent her effusive messages every time I saw some of the pages. What she’s done is exquisite.

What were your favourite picture books from your own childhood, and do you have any favourites that you shared with your own children?

I was a big Shirley Hughes fan as a child. I adored Dogger, but my favourite was probably Sally’s Secret, about a little girl who finds a secret cubby hidden in the garden. I spent a lot of my childhood creating similar cubbies. My son and I loved reading Koala Lou (Mem Fox and Pamela Lofts) and anything by Dr Seuss. And my daughter and I both adored Peggy (Anna Walker), Sadie (Sara O’Leary and Julie Morstad), and Ada Twist Scientist (Andrea Beaty and David Roberts). We still do.

Do you have a particular writing space in your home?

I have a lovely big old table for a desk that looks out into my garden, but, to be honest, I don’t often write there. Usually, I’m scribbling notes while waiting in the car to pick up one of the kids, sitting outside with a cup of tea, or unable to sleep in the middle of the night!

Can you tell us what you will be working on next?

I have a couple of picture book ideas that I’m working on and a concept for a junior fiction series that I’d love to explore.

Thank you so very much Penny for this insight into the background to Extraordinary! I cannot wait to read your next picture book. In the meantime, here is my review of Extraordinary!

This amazing picture book encourages children to appreciate the beauty of nature and the everyday moments which make life extraordinary.

Firstly, you have to take a few moments to linger over the glorious hardback cover. The stunning woodland scene painted in rich autumnal colours, with small details such as leaf spines picked out in foil is so evocative that you can almost smell the loamy scent of the forest floor as the young boy and his dog explore it.

Penny Harrison has written the entire book in gentle rhyme, with a soothing rhythm that lulls you into a meditative recognition of the simple pleasures of life.

The accompanying artwork by Katie Wilson immerses the reader initially into open landscapes where the imagination is invited to soar like an eagle as your wishes expand to the horizons. Then, from these grand vistas the story moves to the domestic, where simple indoor pleasures like relaxing with a bookcase full of wonders in a cosy lounge are to be treasured. Outside, the focus zooms in to observe the antics of insects exploring a blade of grass, or the delight to be found in inhaling the scents of a spring day and observing new life bursting forth. On every page there are joyous depictions of the life-enhancing experience of appreciating the natural world throughout the seasons, with numerous tiny details to find, which will reward re-readers of this book. The words and pictures are in complete harmony as they encourage a feeling of deep gratitude for precious moments in life.

 

As we learn to appreciate the benefits of children spending time exploring the natural world for the benefit of their mental and physical health, and as we encourage them to enjoy and protect their environment, this book will be a wonderful addition to any primary school classroom or library and indeed to any home picture book collection. In a world where even the youngest children are spending large amounts of time staring at screens, this book is a welcome reminder to relish the fleeting special moments of connection with nature.

 

Thank you to New Frontier Publishing UK for my review copy of Extraordinary! and for inviting me to take part in the blog tour.

 

Review: Eco Rangers Wildfire Rescue by Candice Lemon-Scott

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I was extremely fortunate and grateful to be invited to the first bloggers event hosted by the lovely people at New Frontier Publishing, and amongst the wonderful books they gave me was the third Eco Rangers adventure. I decided to read and review this book first as I know how that it will be grasped by eager hands as soon as I take it into school! Wildfire Rescue was written before the start of the wildfires that devastated much of Australia at the end of 2019/beginning of 2020, the timing of its publication brings home the damage caused in an accessible way to primary school children.

Twelve year old Ebony and her best friend eleven year old Jay commence this story searching for injured animals in the bush land on the edge of town. As they make their way through the charred and blackened scrub there is still an orange glow in the sky and the smell of smoke lingering in the air from the recent conflagration, accompanied by an eerie silence due to the lack of birds and insect life.  They discover a ringtail possum, with blackened, burned feet. Remembering all the care techniques that they have been taught by the vets at the wildlife centre they carefully wrap the injured animal in a sheet and cool its paws with the contents of their water bottles. As they race to the animal hospital, their sharp eyes spot signs that someone has been using the campsite which is supposed to be closed during the fire season!

Throughout the rest of the story you just have to marvel at the care and kindness demonstrated by Ebony and Jay to the injured animal and to the mystery campers whom they discover. The author makes clear the danger to both humans and animals caused by wildfires, and also the remarkable ability of the landscape to recover.

Once again Candice Lemon-Scott imbues her story with a love of the environment and provides 10 tips for budding Eco Rangers at the end of the book. Wildfire Rescue will help educate children about the natural hazards faced in Australia as well as introducing them to a lesser-known Australian animal, the ringtail possum. I expect this book to be hugely popular with all children aged 7+ who love to discover new information about the natural world and be simultaneously entertained by a gentle adventure.

 

I am most grateful to New Frontier Publishing for providing a review copy in exchange for an honest review.