February 2021 - Books of the Month
The BooksForTopics February Top Picks
We've picked five of our favourite new children's books this month.
The Shark Caller
It’s no secret that I’m a big fan of Zillah Bethell’s books, so it was delightful to see a copy of her new book arrive from Usborne. The Shark Caller is a stunner of a story - rich with the sights and sounds of its Papua New Guinean setting while also reflecting sagely on universal themes of life and death, family, friendship and time. It’s beautifully written, wise, enticing - haunting at times - but also full of thrills and surprises.
Inspired by the author’s own upbringing in the islands of Papua New Guinea, The Shark Caller tells the story of Blue Wing and her guardian Siringen. As the village’s shark caller, Siringen practices an ancient spiritual tradition of taming sharks out on the ocean in his canoe. It’s a dying tradition and is set at sharp odds with the waves of perceived Americanisation sweeping over the island. Blue Wing wants more than anything to become a Shark Caller too but her reasons are more personal as she wishes to avenge the death of her parents - but tradition does not permit a girl like her to follow the same path as her guardian.
When a visiting professor and his daughter Maple arrive from the US, Siringen and Blue Wing are charged with their care. The professor and his daughter embody the Americanisation that the older generations of islanders fear. The girls’ differences cause immediate obstacles to their relationship and each is quick to dislike the other. Over time, however, they discover they have more in common than they thought and a new friendship develops and each discovers things about themselves that they had never realised before. As Blue Wing finds out more about the professor’s real intentions for his time on the island, she realises that she’s not the only one with a deep longing for something, and begins to see ways that they might help each other to find the treasure they seek.
The author’s love of her native island’s landscape shows through beautifully in the writing and the setting has a real sense of authenticity and depth. Blue Wing’s character development unfolds joyfully too, as she works through her own grudges and prejudices and learns to embrace both past and future. There’s plenty more to say in praise of this book, but I’m wary of spoilers and the story really is astonishing in the best of ways. In short, this is outstanding storytelling that is at once moving, heart-stirring and life-affirming.
David Long & Studio Muti
Amazing Treasures is a new non-fiction gem by author and historian, David Long whose previous titles include the award-winning Survivors.
Presented in hard-back with evocative illustrations throughout, Amazing Treasures promises us 100+ mind-boggling objects and places considered to be 'treasures', both ancient and modern. The book opens with an explanation of what is considered a treasure – the perfect opening for a young reader wanting to understand why we become so fascinated by the world’s treasures, why people aspire to own them and why, perhaps, they need to be protected and preserved.
Amazing Treasures features a world of treasure hoards, sunken treasures and natural wonders, all written in a highly accessible way for young readers. A map - and who doesn’t love those? – in the centre of the book shows children where in the world each treasure is or was located. David Long gives just enough information for children to find out about each treasure but leaves them with the desire to find out more. For teachers, this book could be used as a platform to further learning and investigation or used to dip into to broaden children’s knowledge and curiosity of the world around them. This is a book to be pored over – as I did when it first arrived. I can also imagine it being returned to again and again. I loved that the book was presented in a matt finish and that photos were replaced by beautiful illustrations by Muti as it gives it a timeless appeal.
This book is perfect for KS2 readers and would be a great addition to any classroom or home. The subjects covered in Amazing Treasures will spark a journey of discovery for any inquisitive child and would have a deserved space in the non-fiction area of the classroom. As you can tell, I loved this book and am already planning to use it in the classroom with my own class. It's simply a treasure of a book in its own right.
The Last Bear
Hannah Gold & Levi Pinfold
A beautifully heartfelt and moving story with strong environmental themes. This story highlights the topic of global warming but also draws a picture of the wonderful connection that can develop between children and animals.
When April heads to a remote Arctic island with her father, who is there for scientific research, she's not sure exactly what to expect. The trip to 'Bear Island' has the potential to be a very lonely trip - with endless summer Arctic nights, an isolated wilderness and, according to her father, no actual polar bears left on the island for April to spot despite its name.
Surprisingly, April encounters a real polar bear on the island when nobody else is around. Isolated from his family, the bear is starving and alone, with nobody to help him. Over time, a friendship develops and April becomes more determined than ever to save the bear. April knows that she will have to tread carefully in order to nourish the bear in secret and to navigate the issue of making the adults listen at the right moment. Before long, April realises that she is witnessing first-hand the impact of a much bigger global problem. With courage in the face of powerlessness, April embarks upon a quest to get the bear to safety in an adventure that she will never forget.
There's something magical about this story - from the wonderfully evoked Arctic setting to the glorious friendship that develops between April and the bear. There often seems to be a direct connection and a deep instinct to care that exists between children and the natural world, a connection which is highlighted in the story through the way in which April is able to make a difference to the plight of the bear despite her feeling of powerlessness. Many young readers who really do care about climate change will relate to April's frustration at the inaction of many people, to her sadness at the plight of our precious planet and to her desire to make a difference even through the smallest of actions.
This is a powerful and important story that will stir the heart through its gently unfolding message that places hope in the hands of the young to make a difference to the planet's future.
Two Terrible Vikings
Francesca Simon & Steve May
Meet Hack and Whack – the worst behaved Vikings in the village! They revel in creating chaos and causing carnage wherever they go with hilarious consequences - and what is more, their parents are proud of them!
This series of 3 short stories set in the frozen fjords of a Viking kingdom, the two terrible twins (along with their wolf cub Bitey-Bitey and their friends Twisty Pants and Dirty Ulf,) plunder and pillage the polite and perfect Elsa Gold Hair’s birthday party, track a troll and attempt a daring and dangerous raid of a nearby island.
As well as plenty of laughs and make believe, this book includes some more accurate historical details too; describing longhouses with smoke holes and thatched roofs, iron cauldrons and the need for foraging for rood and smoking fish to name a few. It would be a great addition to a class library during a Viking topic to use alongside non-fiction texts.
Francesca Simon is best known for the Horrid Henry series but also harbours an interest in Norse mythology after having read Old and Middle English at Oxford. These stories bring the author's expertise in all things Vikings into the full spirit of Horrid Henry's comic revelry. The variations in font and the comic illustrations by Steve May really add to the humour and engagement of the story for young readers. It is a fantastic early chapter book - a really accessible read for those starting out tackling longer texts. It will also engage and amuse older but more reluctant readers and would also be great fun to read aloud.
How Do You Make a Rainbow?
Caroline Crowe & Cally Johnson-Isaacs
A joyful picturebook tapping into the power of finding positivity in the world around us.
When a little girls wants to know whether rainbows are painted, Grandad explains that instead they are made with hope and kindness to others. The story visits each of the the rainbow’s colours, listing associated things that bring hope, joy or kindness. Red is tulips or jam on toast, orange is kicking autumn leaves or dressing up as tigers, yellow is feeling sand on your toes or tasting zingy lemons, and so on. Many of the activities mentioned are those shared between friends or family members, and others focus on giving or being a blessing to others. Others still are just personal pleasures (like dying your hair a punk-rock shade of purple!).
I love the emphasis on finding joy in everyday things, and it’s hard to read the story without thinking of your own rainbow of joyful activities that bring colour into life. After months of lockdown, this story could be an excellent springboard into conversations and activities with children about being mindful of small pleasures, about finding positivity and about drawing on the ways in which love, friendship and community can bring joy.
Cheerful in concept and also in its bright illustrations and bouncy rhyme, this is a happy read that is perfectly timed for readers aged 3-7 as they approach the ease of lockdown and beyond.
Reviewers: Alison Leach, Esther Brown.